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Jesus: Servant and Prophet (Mark 9:14-13:37)
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“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
“What we need are some crazy Christians – Christians who are crazy enough to catch a glimpse of the crazy, transforming , transfiguring vision of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Christians who are crazy enough to follow him in the work of helping God to realize God’s dream for all people and all creation.”
~Crazy Christians, a book by the Presiding Bishop Elect, The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry
Jesus’ vision is indeed a crazy one. But any truly revolutionary vision is always edgy, calling us out beyond our present sense of what is possible to what might be. Transformation never happens if the merely prudent way forward is the only road considered.
Jesus’ crazy vision is to inaugurate the transformation of the world so that it may become the world as God has always intended it to be. He calls that transformed world the Kingdom. Jesus also has a vision of exactly what kind of road will get us from here to there, and a clear vision of his own role in getting us there. The road he calls servanthood, and Jesus understands his own role to be a Messiah who will be, not a ruler, but Chief Servant. Jesus turns the usual understanding of leadership upside down, and incarnates in his own words and deeds what it is like to be God’s Servant, and to live so as to make the Kingdom real, here and now.
Jesus’ understanding of Messiah-ship as servanthood, rather than rule, is far from the center of the Jewish tradition. Most expectations of a coming Messiah were of a great and powerful ruler, modeled on the greatness of King David, who would through military might overthrow the Romans who occupied the Land, ending their oppressive rule and bringing Israel back to independence and greatness. But Jesus’ perception of the sort of Messiah that God has called him to be is radically different from this. Reaching back into deeply moving passages from the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus seems to envision himself as a “suffering servant” whose mission is to free the oppressed and offer himself as a prophetic leader who sacrifices himself to lead others on the road towards freedom and well being. (See Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12)
Three times in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts his own death, what we as Christians have come to call his Passion. (Mark 8: 31-33, 9:30-37, 10:35-45) On none of these occasions do the disciples catch on to what Jesus is saying. And we can certainly empathize with their lack of understanding. After all, the Jewish people had expected a warrior-king Messiah, and Jesus is giving witness to a very different understanding of what Messiah-ship is all about, and predicting that he will live out that different vision by a passionate giving of himself for the good of all, even though that will lead to his death. The first time Jesus predicts this road for himself (Mark 8:31-33), Peter says that this must never happen, and Jesus roundly rebukes Peter in return calling him “Satan,” the Tempter. Jesus knows the road he will take as suffering servant Messiah will not be an easy one, and he needs to refuse any temptations – even from his best friend, Peter – that would lead him on an easier road. The second (Mark 9:30-37) and third (Mark 10:35-45) times Jesus predicts his Passion and death, the uncomprehending disciples fall to squabbling about who is the greatest among them and who will be Jesus’ right and left hand men when he triumphs as Messiah. No matter how often Jesus teaches them about the road of servanthood that he must take to save the world from its addiction to “power over,” they cannot grasp it. Is it any wonder? We – who have the advantage of 2000 years of Christian teaching and example – also have trouble grasping that the way to greatness is the way of service, of sharing power and riches, and not the way of “power over.”
In one of the most moving encounters of the entire Gospel, just after Jesus teaches about the passionate way of servanthood for the second time, a rich man comes up to ask him what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17-31) They have a typical rabbinic dialogue in which Jesus reminds him of the commandments that lead to life. The rich man tells Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since he was a child. And then we are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. This man has understood that the first steps of servanthood are keeping the commandments that lead to life, and he has been willing to make the sacrifices that are part of walking that road. And for this, Jesus loves him. But Jesus seems to know that there is one thing that holds this man back from full servanthood: his wealth and many possessions. So he tells the man there is only one more thing to do: to sell what he has, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus on the road of servanthood. When the man cannot do it, and goes away grieving, the disciples glimpse how hard a road this servanthood road is that Jesus is himself taking, and also inviting them to take along with him. When in their astonishment, they seem to recognize that this road is nearly impossible, Jesus replies: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)
As if to illustrate that it is possible to take this road with God’s help, close on the heels of Jesus’ loving encounter with the rich man, comes his interactions with a beggar, blind Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52) This is our Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, October 25. It is easy to misunderstand what is at the center of this story. If we debate about whether miracles of healing like this really happen, then we will have missed the point. This story centers on two things. First, the catalyst for the entire encounter with Jesus is Bartimaeus’ passionate desire to be noticed, heard, and healed of his blindness. Unlike many of us, who are blinded by conflicting desires about what we want, Bartimaeus has his sights set clearly on only one desire, which he states with beautiful clarity when Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimeaus wants to receive his sight back. To follow Jesus on the road that leads to life, to learn the joy of the way of servanthood, will mean we need to know whether we really desire to follow him on this road, or not.
A second center to the story revolves around the wonderful detail of Bartimeaus’ cloak – a visual image that we should not miss. His cloak was his begging “bowl.” Into the cloak people would have cast coins. It could be seen as a symbol of Bartimaeus’ whole way of life. To be freed from a life of blindness and begging, Bartimaeus would have to give up a vision of himself as blind, dependent, and weak, and embrace another way: the way of strong servanthood. When Jesus calls him, he throws off that cloak of his old way of living, springs to his feet, and comes to Jesus – his (and our) first step in following Jesus on the road. What allows him to take this courageous step? I think it comes down to two things. First, he hears the voice of Jesus calling him. In other words, he responds to being seen, cared for, and called by Jesus. That may well be the first step for anyone who wants to follow Jesus. Second, Jesus himself tells us that what really heals Bartimaeus is not some supernatural power that Jesus has, but Bartimeaus’ faith. Now faith can be understood in two ways. One is a checklist of beliefs. And clearly Bartimeaus has a belief that Jesus can help him. But an equally important way to understand faith is as “trusting relationship” – as in the phrase, “I have faith in you.” Bartimeaus seems to trust Jesus, and I think not just as a healer. He trusts that the road Jesus is taking – and on which he faithfully decides to follow – is a road that will be for his good. He trusts that Jesus is, as we so blithely say, love, and that the road Jesus calls him to is the way of love, the servanthood of love. Having faith in this, trusting this, Bartimeaus is willing to try out an entirely new way of life on the road with Jesus.
Like any good teacher, Jesus teaches not merely by what he says, but by what he does. His actions speak as loud as, or louder than, his words. And so as we come into Chapter Eleven of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus enacts that he has been teaching about the road of servanthood by taking that road into Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan say in their book about Jesus’ last days entitled The Last Week, two processions may have entered Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. The first procession represented the road that Jesus had definitively decided not to take: the road of “power over” others, the road of a triumphant warrior-king. That procession was led by Pontius Pilate on a warhorse, leading columns of cavalry and soldiers embodying the “power over” of the oppressive Roman Emperor. They would have carried weapons of various kinds meant to subdue, and if necessary kill, those over whom they wished to maintain power.
But Jesus enacted his decision to be a humble servant in a very different kind of procession. Jesus came into Jerusalem, riding not a warhorse, but a humble donkey. (See below, G.K. Chesterton’s poem, "The Donkey.") And his “soldiers,” the ones like Bartimeaus who had decided to follow him on the road of servanthood, bore not weapons of war and subjugation, but palms: symbols of peace, and the victory that comes not by arms, but by following the road of servanthood.
These two ways, these two roads, will meet during Jesus’ last days on earth in a trial, a death, and a mysterious triumph over death that no earthly Emperor could have predicted or could control. That is the story we will hear in next week’s reading from Mark (Mark 14-16). Meantime, you might ask yourself: Which procession do I find more attractive? Which procession would I have wanted to be part of?
Questions for Reflection
Like the rich man in Mark 10:17ff., all of us have things that hold us back from following Jesus on the road of servanthood. What holds you back? What might free you, like blind Bartimaeus, to let go of your protective cloak and follow Jesus on the road that leads to life? What do you want Jesus to do for you so that you can be freed to follow him on the road of servanthood?
The Donkey – G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
When fishes flew and forests walked,
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry,
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient, crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Christ’s Palm Sunday Entry into Jerusalem – Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) - See Above
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