This past Sunday we were confronted with Mark’s account of Jesus addressing the request of James and John to be special in heaven, and the fall-out among the disciples that ensues. Jesus responds to this situation with words that not only must have made the disciples uncomfortable, but that make us extremely squeamish. Jesus addresses the desire for greatness among the disciples by reminding them that they aren’t to order their lives like the rest of the world. In particular he negatively identifies the Gentile way of leadership, which is tyrannical. Instead, he tells them, “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43)
Preaching on a text that uses the words servant and slave in a positive light is difficult. These words, and slave in particular, are words that conger up the most negative realities of our history. The mere mention of slaves brings to mind, in vivid color, the horrible history of enslavement in our country and others. It also reminds us that even today, there are people being bought and sold as slaves throughout the world. To hear Jesus use this concept to identify a virtuous and great way of life is difficult for us.
Even as we sang our hymn, “Jesu, Jesu Fill Us with Your Love”, I was reminded of how difficult the concept of being a slave is to us. I remember having a discussion on this hymn with a choir director I served with. The director didn’t want me to pick this hymn because it had the word slave in it, and people would be uncomfortable with it, in particular this director thought it would offend any African-Americans that may attend. I wondered if it had more to do with the directors guilt for being part of the American culture that enslaved the African people?
My question for us to today is that if we don’t like what Jesus has to say about being a servant or slave, what do we want to be? Would we rather be the other side of the equation? Are we more comfortable being waited upon or the master? Would we rather have Jesus tell us that we need to be the master? Of course, the overall answer in our hearts, which we would never sa
y, is more often than not, YES!
A simple visit to the grocery store, fast food restaurant or any other place where we interact with people in the service industry, will bear witness to that desire. I am amazed at how looked down upon, are those who serve people everyday. I am embarrassed to see the treatment that those behind the counter at the Greenbriar McDonald’s receive. Our sinful nature loves to use our position of privilege and power to subjugate others.
Yet, isn’t that the very thing that Jesus is saying we must not do. We shouldn't act like those who use their power and authority to lord over others. I pray that most of us don’t go around saying, “I would love to be an overlord.” Even still, it is easy for us to forget the need to turn from our desire to be master, and instead submit to being a slave. Remember, this is a very different form of slave than what we know from human history. This is a willing submission of one’s own authority and autonomy. We aren’t talking about being forced or coerced. The other aspect of this is that our service to others is directed by a good, just and loving master. God does not exert the rule of a master as one who is selfish or cruel. Rather, our God is one who leads us in love. This calls us to put a great deal of trust in the power and rule of God in our lives. We must accept that God’s will and wisdom is greater than anything else we experience.
This willing submission to the will of God as a Divine Master and Lord is the very nature of Jesus’ life. We witness in Jesus a model of how we should live. Jesus humbly submitted himself to the authority of God the Father. In doing so, he made himself servant and slave. In the end, this willing enslavement to the will of God is an eternal service to us in salvation.
So what do you want to be? If God is the Master, are you willing to submit yourself to God’s authority and make yourself a slave of Christ? The paradox of our faith is that through our submission comes freedom. Thanks be to God for his providential wisdom.