Tag Archives: servanthood

Me First!

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.

Not.

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)

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A Verse for Meditation

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  Mark 10:45

  • In books that teach career advancement, one of the common mantras is, “It’s not what you know; it’s who.” The disciples clearly thought they knew the right person to advance them to special celebrity status. (See Mark 10:35-40) What was wrong with this idea?
  • Do you want career advancement? What good thing would happen if you were promoted? What bad thing might accompany career advancement? What if you didn’t care either way? 
  • Did you ever consider that you are 100% responsible for the success of your employer? What would you need to differently if this is true? Do you know what your employer thinks it means for him/her to be successful? Do you think Jesus cares if your employer is successful? If you are successful?
  • If you decided that your call is to be a servant, whom would you serve?

Christ Enriches People’s Lives, The Government Perpetuates Poverty

I have pointed out previously that Jesus did not teach that we should give all our money to government in order that the government take care of the poor. Now I will explain why. Our decisions about our relationship with our government is part of the way we live in obedience to our Lord. When we choose to make the government the agent of our social concerns, we are denying our personal stewardship of the means God gives us to care for ourselves and others. We are further denying our individual and communal calling within the church to be Christ to the people we meet. This decision is not simply a mistake. It is bad for everyone.

Think about the amount of money and the number of programs our federal government has initiated in its efforts to help the poor. The outcome is obvious: there are more poor people than ever before. Common sense tells us that if we try something that fails miserably, the smart response is to try something different. We may decry the poor stewardship of God’s provision when programs fail. We may point accusing fingers at administrative failures and lying clients. But the bottom line is that the federal government keeps starting more and more programs that do not work, all designed to give money, housing, education and so forth to the poor, but none of them have ended or even reduced poverty. The number of people in poverty continues to grow year after year, and the cost of giving things to more and more people escalates with the client base.

Why?

Because as one radio commentator said recently, government social programs do not eradicate poverty; they simply make poverty easier to endure.

Everyone knows that poor people feel deprived and devalued. Those who have never known anything but poverty wonder where the people they see on TV got all that stuff, and they want the same stuff. This is the kind of envy that fuels the Occupy movement, which is largely populated with people who are not poor. The “Occupy” partisans simply feel angry and hurt that somebody has more than they have, and they feel entitled to take what others have acquired. They allege to believe that they are leveling the playing field.

When we Christians buy into this rhetoric, we are denying the teachings of Christ.

Remember when Jesus told us not to worry about what we need? This statement was not a mystical exercise to be folded up along with your meditation mat and your candle after prayer

time. This is the real thing. Jesus promised us that if we got our priorities straight, God would bless us with everything we need.

Sooo. How much is enough? How do we know that we have what we need and we don’t need any more? This is a very different question than the one the Occupy movement asks. The people in the Occupy movement look at other people and say, “You have more than you need.” Jesus says we should look at God instead of other people. We should ask what God wants us to be doing with our lives, instead of probing into the lives of other people to determine what they should and should not do. Jesus said we should be concerned about doing what God created us to do. He said that if we are achieving our own purposes, then we will be happy, fulfilled and not needy.

In other words, there is no single answer to what anybody “needs.” The government makes all sorts of definitions and regulations and policies and procedures. Despite all that effort to end poverty, there is more poverty than ever. What’s more, even people who are not in poverty feel needy. Government programs that attack one problem generate envy, jealousy and outright greed among people who have a different problem. They want to know why their problem is not being solved for them.

None of this is God’s plan for people. God created each of us to be blessed in relationship with him. He gave each of us gifts and vision and purpose, and he promises that when we are using our gifts and following that vision and accomplishing his purpose, we will be happy and content. He never ever at any time says that he wants everyone to have the same things or the same number of things. He does not even say that the playing field will be level or the rules will be fair. The mountains will become plains and everybody will be completely joyful in the new heaven and earth at the end of time, but not here and not now. In the here and now we will have challenges and fears and doubts and failures and wants and needs and happy days and sad days. This life will never be a picnic, but it will be fulfilling and worthwhile. The sense of fulfillment and the recognition of value will not be about some balance in a bank account.

Government can do nothing for the spirit of a human being. Government can grant people money and possessions, but that is all. Sadly, the human who has nothing but the gratification of biological needs is not a human being fully alive. That human is miserable, and all he or she looks forward to is receiving another possession or another payment. That is what we all see in the people who settle into government housing buying food with government payments and waiting for a raise in their benefits. They learn how to optimize their benefits, and they teach their children the same attitude.

This is not what God created people to be. If we Christians, who know Christ and the fulfillment of life in relationship with Him do not love and serve our neighbors ourselves instead of foisting it all off on the government, the world will become a desolate and dreary place. We must reclaim the role we have historically had in doing good for people. In big ways and small ways, we must show people the love of God every day. We must demonstrate that we love people by sacrificing self and serving others. We must do this in our daily lives in a million small ways. We must not put it off to be done by “ServeNow.org.”

Am I the model of this behavior? I am not. I am working on it. I spent most of my life believing I was supposed to spend all my time in mental activity. I am only just waking up to the truth that every Christian has the same calling – servanthood. I have never been humble and selfless and caring, but now that I see what government administration does to programs intended to love and serve people, I am positive that this is not the way to lift up the poor and bring liberty and prosperity to all. You tell me. What are you doing? Tell me what you do in big ways and small ways that have nothing to do with society or government or activism or “awareness” or any of the buzz words. Help me learn. I need your help. I am praying for guidance, but I do believe there are people out there somewhere living in the style that exemplifies Jesus’ teaching. Please share your experience and your thoughts.