Slaves first…

‘You know how it is in the pagan nations,’ he said. ‘Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it is going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The Son of Man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many”.’

I have been working through N.T Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Year B” in the weeks since Lent started. Personally I have found it great as devotional reading – I find pretty much all of Tom Wright’s work to be fantastic! It has also been a helpful guide in preaching too – I have been using Mark’s gospel as the basis for our church’s life and worship through Lent. For me, Mark has been quite brilliant as I have read it through again and again in the last few months – his explosive, no-nonsense way of writing suits me. And my willingness to work at getting Mark’s bigger picture has put every little individual section in Mark’s gospel in a brand new light for me. Admittedly, in my Christian life, I have been poor at reading the books of the Bible with any sense that they were written by skilled authors who had plan and purpose in their work. I have been too quick to read the bible as a series of short, inspirational, living, preach-worthy sections and stories and not to see them as something which has been included in a bigger work with some bigger points to make. This has been to my devotional detriment over the years.

Today, I turned up the reading and was led to the passage in which the above quote appears – Mark 10:35-45. Because of the way in which I have been guilty of reading Scripture in years gone by, I was quick to recognize that this is a passage which I have read many times before and listened to many a sermon preached on too. The worry when I recognize a passage in that way is that it can become too easy to switch off, just read the words and not really think them through. However, today this is not the case. I am reading this passage no longer as a stand alone story from the life of Jesus. Rather, I am reading this passage as a story carefully placed by Mark in his attempt to help readers like me understand the points that have already been firmly made in the previous two chapters, namely that Jesus is the Messiah(8:29), God’s own Son (9:7), and that what lies ahead (suffering and death) is the plan of God for the salvation of the world (8:31, 9:12, 9:31). It is by that suffering and death, which is going to happen in the coming days, that Jesus will finally be declared King of kings. The disciples have spent the last couple of chapters in confusion over the things that Jesus is saying. Peter declares Jesus as Messiah but then rebukes him for saying that he will suffer and die; on the mount of Transfiguration, they understand that what is happening is sacred, holy and special and their only reaction is to ask if they should build tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses in order to preserve the moment. Mark is painting a picture (in these chapters) of the disciples as ones who seem to be able to say the words “Jesus is Messiah” but struggle with what the implications of that are in the plan of God. They can be forgiven for reacting with such confusion. After all, when a person is declared King the expectation would naturally be that they have been or will be victorious. For Jesus to begin to name himself as the Messiah and then talk about his suffering and death does indeed seem like a bit of an unvictorious anti-climax for the long, arduous story of Israel’s wait for their king.

The Transfiguration was certainly a turning point for James and John. On that mountain, they realized for sure that Jesus was who he had been revealing himself to be. They saw the heroes of old and they heard the voice of the Father. As they came down that mountain and re-entered life as they knew it, their understanding would have been that Jesus is or would one day be the King. They now had an idea of the true identity that Jesus was getting ready to take on. But they still had no inkling of what that would mean for Jesus or for themselves. For them, for Jesus to be King was for Jesus to take on a new power and authority; it was for Jesus to be in charge; for Jesus to be giving the orders, and they wanted to be right in on that action with him.

“Hey Jesus, could you maybe do something for us?”

“What is it that you boys want?”

“When you are in your glory, as King, would you let us sit beside you – one of on your right and one of us on your left?”

It was clear from their question that they still had no clue about what Jesus had been trying to get across to them about the nature of life in the Kingdom of God. Wright put it very well in his writing on this passage:

“Actually, he’s been telling them about this for the last two chapters and they still haven’t even begun to grasp the point. He is going to die; and his death will not be a messy accident, will not simply be the kind of thing that happens to people who lead powerful renewal movements or who go about declaring that god is now becoming king, and acting in accordance with that. His death will be the means by which he becomes king, and hence – since the two are intimately bound up with one another – the means by which God becomes king. This is how, as he said in 9:1, God’s kingdom will come with power – but it is a power that, as Paul saw, is utterly redefined.

The redefinition, in fact, is the point of it all. James and John, like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, are still thinking as humans think rather than thinking as God thinks. Look at the pagan world, says Jesus. ( We look around at our own world and – guess what! – remarkably little has changed.) The rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects, and people in positions of power boss other people around. That, no doubt, is what James and John wanted to o, and it is what a great many people in our world long to do. If you can’t beat them, join them. But that is not how things work in the Kingdom of God. Back, once again, top the lesson which the disciples had to learn but still hadn’t learnt, after the encounter with the rich young man.

In God’s upside down world (or should it be right-way-up world?) everything is reversed. It’s like ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Anyone who wants to be great must be (what did they expect: ‘prepared to work hard’ or ‘exceptionally prayerful and well behaved’ or ‘utterly trustworthy and responsible’?) – must be your servant. The one who hands you a fresh cup to drink out of. The one who cleans up when you have finished eating. The one who scrapes the mud off your boots when you come in from the field. The one you take for granted, who does things you can’t be bothered to do. Yes: your servant. In fact anyone who wants to be first must…again what do we expect? ‘Must have exceptionally sharp elbows and be prepared to get up very early in the morning to get ahead of all the other pushy people out there’? No: to be first you must be the slave of all. Slave! Even lower than ‘servant’. The slave has no rights; no human dignity. Nothing to make you envy or look up to him. People despise slaves. Treat them as dirt. Look the other way rather than catch their eye.

Yes, precisely. Now watch:

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him; nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

That is the passage (Isaiah 53:2-3) that jesus had in mind. It goes on to speak of this slave, this ‘servant of the Lord’, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, receiving in himself the punishment that made us whole (53:5). He will give his life ‘a ransom for many’

It isn’t just that James and john haven’t been paying attention to what jesus has been saying about what will happen to him in Jerusalem. They haven’t begun to even glimpse that jesus’ forthcoming death will be the moment when, and the means by which god’s saving power is revealed in all it’s glory.”

I don’t think I had grasped it either. But this passage of writing by Wright certainly helped.

Everything about Jesus points to our call to be servants. I get that wrong all the time. My suspicion is that many do.

It’s time to stop getting it wrong and start putting it right.

To be first, I must choose to be last and to be servant and slave to all. That’s the model of Jesus and therefore also the model for my life.

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