Brief synopsis of the readings: God promises to reward his servant for “his life in atonement” promising he will “see his heirs, he shall have a long life, and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.” His servant’s anguish will be over. In Mark’s Gospel we see brothers James and John asking Jesus for a favor: “Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.” Jesus tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for. “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?” They assured Jesus they could. Jesus then told them these seats were not his to grant. The other 10 grew indignant with James and John. Jesus gathered them and warned them against seeking greatness. “For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A few times in the last weeks we’ve seen Jesus in the presence of children where his disciples attempted to block access to Jesus. Instead, Jesus invited the children to come to him and explained that children often have a great deal to teach us.
Today’s readings made me think of children in a new way. Everybody reads our Gospel through the lens of knowing we should not desire to be served but instead should serve. Simply put we are warned against ambition, against sitting in chairs of honor.
And in fairness it’s a lesson we never completely learn. Time and again we see examples of those around us who crave power and/or influence through proximity to authority. Do I have the ear of the senior vice president? Will he take my call? Does the pastor know my name? Can I convince him that I should be on the parish council?
But interestingly that’s a learned behavior. Small children may tussle over toys or the attention of an adult, but by and large they don’t ask to sit next to the class president at lunch.
Alas, by the time they are teenagers much has changed. I often joke that adolescence is difficult because they have all the drama but few of the coping skills. Status in their social groups become more and more important. Substitute James and John for ordinary high school students and Jesus for the quarterback on the football team and you can see my point.
And yes, I’m going to talk about social media. In the last several years we’ve not only learned about the importance of clicks and likes but also the damage that happens when someone feels left out or bullied. We know too much about anorexia, self mutilation and suicide.
Like all of us I wish our children could ignore status and simply be happy with who they are but it’s a heavy lift. We are hard wired to build communities with hierarchies and we are hard wired to want to climb those hierarchies with little regard to the cost to ourselves or others. Teenagers care about status because we care about status. Every time we look at an organizational chart we look to see where we are and we teach the next generation to do the same.
But here’s the thing: our destiny is not limited by hard wiring. If Jesus has anything to tell us (and he has a great deal to tell us) we are called to move beyond our basest inclinations. I’m amused when someone opposes marriage equality by claiming that “the Bible has always taught that marriage is between one man and one woman.” If the Old Testament tells us anything it tells us that marriage is between one man and as many women as he can support.
We no longer believe that. Jesus often spoke about equality and I suggest that as we began to see women as partners and equals we recognized we are called to monogamy, even if our basest inclinations tempt us otherwise.
So let’s look at ambition with those same eyes. When James and John made their power play, and the other disciples reacted with indignity, Jesus called them to grow beyond ambition. Jesus told them to grow beyond our hard wiring.
If we live to serve instead of being served it changes everything. If our hard wiring tells us that ambition will move us from being servers to being served we doom ourselves to endless conflict and warfare. That’s a world where everyone else is merely a stepping stone or an obstacle to our needs.
A world where we seek instead to serve transforms us into living in a world where everyone else provides us with an opportunity live with generosity and love, in no small part because everyone around us lives to provide what we need.
I’m currently mourning the recent death of my friend Pete. In 1976 he inherited a small charity called “Truck of Love” and made it his own. When someone asked Pete for something he gave it to him but then asked: “What else do you need?” Pete was not transactional, he was loving. He believed that the more you knew and loved another person the more you could provide what that person needed. He saw that indigenous children in Southern Arizona needed a summer camp, that a community in Tijuana, Mexico who lived on what they could scavenge from landfills needed basic food and toiletries. And he saw that women in Rock Hill, South Carolina who left abusive relationships needed a safe place to live. And he built a legacy that continues on after his death.
In the meantime he carried this vision to his wife and children, and to me, and to countless others. He never shamed or belittled, and he lived the words of St. Francis: “Preach at all times, and when necessary, use words.” When I met him in 1983 I decided I wanted to be as joyful as he was. Let’s all do that.
By the way, you can learn more about the Truck of Love at here .