Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve

Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day he will rise again."

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from him. And he said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to him, "Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand and the other on the left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They said to him, "We are able." So he said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on my right hand and on my left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by my Father."

And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

- Matthew 20:17-28

In yesterday's reading (For many are called), we read of the life of the kingdom, how it is always "calling" to those who wish to work in the vineyard of the world, so that all will receive the same reward. This parable was told to the apostles in the spirit of the teaching of humility. However, Jesus taught them that they will receive the reward of the place prepared for them in judgment. Today, we continue with themes of humility, as Jesus has continued teaching throughout the past several readings. In this case, he once again emphasizes the humility especially expected among the leadership of his church - and which is set by his own example.

Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day he will rise again." We begin with another iteration of Jesus' future in this world. He will be betrayed to the leadership of the temple, he will be condemned to death, delivered to the Gentiles "to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And on the third day he will rise again." As they are on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus prepares them once again. In this case, amongst these readings about humility within the church and especially among the hierarchy, Jesus emphasizes his suffering that he will face - to set an example for today's teaching.

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from him. And he said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to him, "Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand and the other on the left, in your kingdom." My study bible notes on the next section of today's reading: "Here is yet another discussion about greatness and rank among the disciples. Matthew reports that the mother of Zebedee's sons requested positions of honor for her sons, but John's and James's own involvement is revealed by the plural you in the Greek of v. 22 and by their answer, We are able." So, we are immediately given an example of the disciples seeking a greater honor than the rest; in this case, John and James Zebedee (and their mother), two of Jesus' closest disciples, who shared the moment of Transfiguration, along with Peter.

But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They said to him, "We are able." So he said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on my right hand and on my left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by my Father." My study bible notes, "Christ calls his Crucifixion a cup and his death a baptism. The Cross is a cup because he drank it willingly (Heb. 12:2). His death is baptism, for he was completely immersed in it, and by it he cleansed the world. He does not say the seating arrangement is not mine to give (v. 23) to diminish his own authority; he means that it is not his alone to give." Clearly, the places prepared in the Kingdom are those prepared by God, the Trinity, not Christ alone. In all things, he does the will of the Father. That will include his baptism of crucifixion, the cup of suffering he will endure as a human being "for the life of the world." So the disciples will also follow in his example, many of them dying a death by crucifixion, in martyrdom, as they testify to this gospel.

And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. The rest of the disciples are very upset that two of their members would desire a position of greatness superior to the rest. But Jesus called them to himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant." Jesus gives us a taste here of what rank and hierarchy are to be like in his kingdom, and how this is contrasted with that of the "Gentiles" - that of worldly power. My study bible says, "Here is a new definition of greatness. All offices and positions in the Church are for the service of God's people based on love." Worldly power is manipulative; it is based on the capacity to push others around, emphasized by force. But in this kingdom, Jesus asks for a different perspective: "whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant." This is to be a kingdom of love -- the church a model of that love! And with love goes humility, in exemplary form, a reflection of the grace we receive from God.

And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave -- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." My study bible notes here: "The Only Begotten Son possessed the power to give his life voluntarily, and to take it up again (John 10:17). Christ, the lover of man, did not shun death, for he wished to prevent the whole world from perishing in sin. For many in Aramaic means 'for all.' " We have a kind of a repetition of the teaching Jesus has already given us twice in recent readings. In Tuesday's reading, he taught, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." And in yesterday's reading, he taught, "So the last will be first, and the first last." Today he teaches that whoever first among the disciples, "let him be your slave." The love among those who work for the kingdom should be exemplary; it should reflect the grace given to us all through the love of God. This is a teaching on humility, that reflects the deep love that God has for all of us, even (perhaps especially) for those who are lost, whom God wishes to call back in reconciliation, through grace.

So, what are we to make of today's reading and teaching on humility among the disciples? How do our churches measure up to this standard? (I have many readers from all different denominations, so I address my questions to all of us.) We have had many recent readings in which Jesus has taught us not just about faith, but about the need for humility, which also comes from detachment. In so many ways, and at so many levels, he has taught us recently about this necessity. Not only will he suffer himself this great calamity of scourging and crucifixion, but he asks of his apostles and disciples that they serve one another in that same spirit of love. He has extended this in his teachings to the "little ones" of the church "whose angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven," to the women at the mercy of their husbands (regarding easy divorce), to the "little children" who must not be forbidden from coming to Christ, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven." He has taught about the importance of detachment from possessions, so that nothing stands in the way of this heavenly relationship - and addressed the fact that the disciples have left all behind for him and for this kingdom. But today we are taught that even among the disciples themselves, they are to set the greatest example, and follow him. What does this mean for us, and for our churches? How do our hierarchies reflect this kind of love? Each of us (as individuals) has our own work to do, in our own way. But I think that perhaps none of us is exempt from these teachings; and we will each find them at work in our own lives. We will each have challenges to meet of things we need to give up, that conflict with the teachings of humility we will find as we go along this path, things from which we need to detach in order to more fully fulfill this teaching of love and the importance of salvation in the kingdom. Over and over again, we come back to the idea that nothing stands in the way of our relationship to God - it is this relationship that teaches us who we are, who we need to be, and to become. In this way we fulfill the spirit of this promise of the kingdom, and we help others to do likewise. In this sense, God asks each of us to return in reconciliation, to find out who we are in his kingdom, in this love and this grace. Salvation is the act of finding ourselves, and of giving up all that stands in the way of that realization in this relationship that defines grace. Would we were to take it to heart more deeply, our own love for others would reflect that grace that seeks for all to find this same reconciliation. What choice today will you make that serves that embrace of love? From what will you detach that stands in its way?