Gospel Text: Mark 10:17-31
In the story immediately preceding today’s text, Jesus tells the disciples what will happen to him in Jerusalem. They were walking together along a road that would ultimately take them to Jerusalem, and you might think that the first thing the disciples would suggest is to go somewhere else.
The reaction of the disciples is to start scheming for pre-eminence in Christ’s kingdom. He has already told them that they will all sit on thrones, but that is not good enough. They may even be sitting in a circle on those thrones, but everybody actually wants to sit near Jesus. James and John are the first to bring it up, and in Matthew’s report of this occasion, he says that their mother got into the act. They have all listened to Jesus predict his own death, but their first concern is to figure out who can be the most important among the survivors.
The disciples don’t get the message. They don’t really know what Jesus is about. They have all heard Jesus preach about giving people more than they ask for, and they heard Jesus preach about loving the neighbor more than self, and they heard Jesus tell the rich young ruler that he needed to let go of everything but Jesus in order to be a follower, but none of it has sunk in. They still believe that Jesus, the celebrity who is surrounded by people night and day, is going to be a big shot in Jerusalem, and that they will be big shots along with him.
Jesus did not leave his throne in heaven in order to be what passes for importance on earth. He was already creator and ruler of the universe. He left his throne to show people God in the flesh. He came into our world in order to show us his world.
Jesus came to be a servant. He gently rebukes his disciples by telling them that he has come to be a servant. If they want to be like him, they need to be servants, too. The gospel record makes it clear that they did not understand what he meant, not even when he washed their feet on the night before his death.
We don’t understand, either. We think that a person whose name is known nationwide must be more important than everyone else. We think that a pastor who is famous must be a better pastor, because everybody knows his name. We think that a pastor whose church has thousands in the audience on Sunday must be a really good pastor, even though we know that football teams have even bigger crowds any day of the week.
The word service is quite popular right now. The secular culture emphasizes the word probably as much as Christian teaching does. However, the usage and meaning of the word is different in a secular context than in a Christian context. Because Christians live in the culture, and because the word used is the same, Christians get confused sometimes. They believe that they are performing Christian service by doing kind things such as feeding the poor or by giving up time to help paint a classroom in the church building. These acts are certainly service, but anybody, secular or Christian, could perform these actions.
When Christ spoke of service he was not referring to mere voluntarism. When his disciples argued over who got the best seats in heaven, he didn’t say that the ones with the most hours on record in the homeless shelter would get the reward. He challenged them to serve others the way he himself came to serve – “to give his life a ransom for many.” This challenge is the same challenge he gave when he asked the rich young ruler to let go of everything he owned. Jesus wanted that young man to stop thinking about himself. He wanted the man to follow him in service to others, and that is what Jesus wanted from his disciples. Jesus could have shouted, “Don’t you see how I give up peace and quiet, comfort and convenience, even my meals, so I can serve people? And this is only the beginning. I’m going to give up my life for them. Do you think you can do this? This is how you get to be important in my world.”
In another place, Jesus talked about the difference between good deeds, the content of secular service, and service to God. He said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) In other words, good works as a response to good government or as a commitment to environmentalism or even just to assure somebody a roof over his head is not the kind of service Jesus is talking about. Jesus expects his followers to be servants whose work points people to God. If a Christian helps to build someone a house, the person served needs to know it is for Jesus’ sake. If a Christian serves a meal to a hungry person, he needs to give it in Jesus’ name. If a Christian serves others, and they say thank you, the right response is, “Don’t thank me. Thank Jesus.”
There are many situations in which that response may be tough. Jesus did not say it would be easy. A new Christian in a Muslim community in southeast Asia walked to school with three friends. On the way to school, they asked her if she would be willing to give up Christ and return to the faith of Islam. She refused. They asked again. She refused. By the time they reached the school, the girls were starting to push her and pull her hair, because she refused to renounce her faith in Christ. At the school, others joined in the fight. Eventually, a bystander rescued the young Christian and sent her back home. In our secular culture, we Christians may not be shoved or beaten for our faith, but we may hear scornful words. If you tell a homeless person that you are serving him a meal for Jesus’ sake, either the homeless person or other bystanders may accuse you of trying to “force” your faith on other people. Yet Jesus said that when we serve him by serving others our work should point to him, not to ourselves. This is not a case of “forcing” anything on anyone. It is simply being faithful to our call to serve Christ by serving others.
When Jesus told his disciples that the road to greatness was the road of service, he told them something else. He said that he would “give his life a ransom for many.” This announcement was a repeat of the warning that had instigated the disciples’ argument over who would be the greatest. Jesus tied the knot on this warning around a loop of service. There is the real truth. If any of us wants to be first in God’s kingdom, we have the wrong goal. We won’t get there by pushing others out of the way. Instead, we must turn away from the head of the line and look for the last spot. We must give the bread and fish we brought for lunch to the person in line ahead of us. When some big Satanic bully comes along and starts hurting people, then we must be willing to die for them. It makes a few scornful words from someone who doubts the very existence of God sound rather feeble. Jesus said that neither he nor his disciples have the leisure for popularity contests. For the love of many, we all have work to do, service to perform, even if it costs our whole lives. Not to worry. Jesus also said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)