When listening to today’s Gospel it is as important as ever to remember that we are all disciples. We are all students, we are all learning, we are all followers on the way. Today we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over 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. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
When Jesus says, “It is not so among you,” he is not just speaking to those 12 people gathered in front of him. He is speaking to all of us. Those that are recognized as rulers lord it over other and the great ones are tyrants over them, It Will Not Be So Among You. It will not be so among us. Jesus is putting his expectations for the community of the kingdom of God in stark contrast to the hierarchical society in which those 12 disciples found themselves, and from which their ideas about community and relationship were still being formed.
This is the second chapter of Mark in a row where we see the disciples jockeying for position in the kingdom of God. In Chapter 9, the gospel from four weeks ago, the author of Mark reports Jesus asking the 12, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” These are again the words we hear echoed in today’s gospel, as John and James still don’t
seem to have gotten the message, asking Jesus ““Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he says to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Another episode of the disciples seeming to jockey for position in the kingdom of heaven.
But here there is something more than just wanting to be great. Here, James and John are asking, “Jesus, please tell me where I will end up. Please assure me that I will be safe, that I will be secure, that I will have a place in the future.” And Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They reply, “We are able.” Then Jesus says to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus, without shaming then, without berating them, lets them in on a secret. “What will happen to me, will happen to you, but I cannot tell you when or how, or even where you will end up after. This is not mine to grant. I cannot walk this journey for you.” Jesus cannot walk their journey for them, and neither can he walk ours for us.
Similar to his response from chapter nine, Jesus concludes his discussion of the hierarchy of the kingdom of God like this, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” We often take this as another commandment from Jesus as to how we are supposed to interact with those around us. But this is something more than just another commandment. What it can sound like is Jesus rearranging the hierarchy and flipping upside down what it means to be great. It sounds like a command to be the least. If you wish to become the greatest, you must be the servant of all, if
you wish to be first, you must be the slave of all. But isn’t this still just about becoming great? Has Jesus just changed the way you become great while still making greatness the goal?
This is often how we think of these saying from Jesus, and it ends up just giving us a new set of tasks to become great instead of shifting the relational paradigm of our worldview. We get into a mindset of being the “most least.” We think, “All I have to do to be greatest is serve everyone.” But this can become just as much of an ego project as trying to be the greatest by ruling over other. “Look at me being such a good servant. I am the most servant-like of anybody. Look at how great I am at sacrificing everything.’ So, let us take a closer look at what Jesus may really be saying here.
This is an example of translation radically changing the emphasis of a phrase. In the Greek, this teaching from Jesus does not say, “In order to become the greatest you must be the least and servant of all.” Rather, a direct translation of the Greek phrase says, “Whoever desires to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever desires to become first among you will be slave of all.” Can you hear the difference? The goal is not to be great, ever. It is not that if we want to be great we must first be servants of all. Being the least and servant of all is not a prerequisite for greatness, but a consequence. Jesus’ teaching here is that when we try to be great, when our goal is greatness, we will be a servant of all. We will be a servant to our own need to be great, no matter if that greatness is by overpowering people or by being the least.
When our goal is greatness, we will be servants, and enslaved to the opinions and perceptions of others. Because as Jesus says, in hierarchical society those who people recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; instead, if your striving is to be first, then you will be enslaved to everyone. There is no
such thing as personal power in the kingdom of heaven, because wherever there is power there is also oppression.
But I still can’t help but want to be great, to be the best, to sit at the right hand of Jesus, to be the most powerful. Because there is safety, and certainty and security in that kind of power. Or at least I think there is. But really, whenever I have staked my personal feelings of security, of safety, of certainty, of identity on being the best, being the greatest, being right, it has felt like anything but safe and peaceful and secure. It has instead felt like servitude. A slave to all, because I am staking my ability to be ok on my ability to be better than everyone. So, what are we to do when the only way we know how to be safe is to dominate, and that that very pursuit will lead to our own bondage and servitude.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus’ words ring out from our depths, calling us somewhere we have not yet dared to go, that we have not yet let ourselves believe could possibly be the answer. When we hear this phrase “Give his life, a ransom for many” we can’t help but ask, “A ransom to who?” To pay a ransom, someone must be held hostage. This word ransom is something more than just a blood sacrifice to an angry hostage taker. Instead of “ransom,” this word literally means a payment for the freedom of a slave, λύτρον in Greek. This seems appropriate, as Jesus has just reminded us of the way in which we enslave ourselves and is now reminding us of how the son of man, the human one, gives their life as a payment for freedom from that slavery. But how does this happen? We might turn to our other new testament reading to learn how.
In our reading from the book of Hebrews, we hear Jesus referred to as the “source of our salvation.” This might seem like they are saying that the source of this freedom from enslavement is Jesus’ actions in life, death and resurrection. That these things were done on our
behalf to set us free. While this may be true, there is a deeper implication for our journey than this. In another place, the writer of Hebrews adds still more perspective to how we are to understand this “ransom.” In chapter two the author refers to Jesus as the “pioneer of our salvation.” A pioneer, more than just the payer of a ransom for the one time freeing of all, implies something ongoing, something that we are still called to do now. A pioneer, a leader, a founder of a journey, journeys into the unknown, discovers newness in previously uncharted territory, and blazes a path, but for what purpose? Simply to have done it? So that no one else will ever have to walk it? No. A pioneer sets out into that unknown so that other may someday follow them. It is not an individual mission, an isolated journey, it is a journey, a path, that is meant to be followed, that is meant to be walked by all, not by just the first one to have walked it.
The “ransom” that was Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, was not a one-time payment, but a journey that we are all called to follow him on. A journey of suffering, rejection, death, resurrection and new life. A journey that we will walk many times in our lives, but that leads us out of the bondage we put ourselves in. A journey that we can take with confidence, or as the writer of Hebrews implores us “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Like Jesus says to James and John, who desperately want the security of knowing where their journey will end, “That is not mine to grant,’ but “the cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” What will happen to me will happen to you. What has happened to Jesus, if we are willing to follow this path, will happen to
us. And it will not happen without suffering, it will cost us those things we think we must have to be safe. It will cost us our need to be right, but we will find at the end a new kind of righteousness. It will cost us our need to be great, but we will find at the end a release from the bonds of striving for greatness.
It will cost us our life, but it is our life that we will find. We can run with perseverance this race, a race that follows the path cut through the wilderness of our deepest fears and yearning, through the deepest parts of ourselves, by Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, and for the joy set before us endure the suffering along the way. For we can know, and have experienced, that our attempts at greatness have enslaved us, but a ransom has been paid. And that ransom is a path to freedom, a path that no one can walk for us, but one that we can be assured God walks with us.
St. Paul’s Cathedral Proper 24 Year B