When a couple of Jesus’ close disciples came to him requesting that he grant them prestigious positions in the kingdom they believed he was about to establish, he responded by telling them, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave to all.”
Our pastor mentioned that episode in his sermon last Sunday, pointing out how shocking the statement would have sounded to the disciples, who lived in a culture where greatness could be measured in part by how many servants one had. Greatness was certainly not measured by how many persons one served, and the “slave to all” would obviously be the least great person, not the greatest person.
Of course this statement of Jesus, like everything else he said, when not completely ignored, has been sanitized, diluted and rendered innocuous. His shockingly revolutionary message, when not completely disregarded, has been processed and reconfigured to serve and promote our cultural, political and economic idols, rather than to smash them. Typically, when the message of Jesus threatens our culture, we defang the message to protect the culture, or even worse we misuse the message to validate the culture.
This comment about being slave to all wasn’t an anomoly. Nearly everything that Jesus is recorded as having said was like taking a sledge hammer to society. The kingdom that he was calling for was entirely upside down. When he told his followers that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the Bible says the followers were “amazed” and asked “Who then can be saved?” Their culture told them that it was the rich who most obviously had God’s favor, and if they couldn’t make it, then who possibly could?
It seems a great pity to me that we can’t read those stories and feel the same shock and amazement that would have been felt by those who first heard them. We’ve declawed them and loaded them all with a couple thousand years of imperial baggage. Now they are almost always adapted to our predominant metanarrative–to serve its interests. For example, the humility and nonviolence taught by Jesus somehow gets twisted into a bizarre combination of pride, arrogance, tribalism, coercion and glorification of violence. All we have to do is look around us and try to find a person who is actively seeking to be a slave to all. Of course there are folks who do and I am privileged to know a few, but they aren’t easily noticed because, naturally, they aren’t seeking to draw attention to themselves.
Is the message of Jesus now so entangled with power structures and institutions and so coopted by the defenders of the status quo as to be permanently neutered? How do we try to live out the kingdom in an age where “Christian” often has come to mean doing just the opposite?
I get disheartened sometimes when I think about it too much. Cherie has told me often it makes her so sad that she literally wants to just sit and cry.
I surely don’t have it all figured out and I don’t claim to have the answers or to be any kind of good example. But I yearn for this kingdom and I know with all my heart that what the vast majority of us are doing now isn’t advancing it.
Two thousand years ago the people of a tiny, poor place, under the boot of the military superpower of that day, were waiting and hoping for a savior. They believed he would ride triumphantly into Jerusalem one day to be crowned, to cast out the Romans and then inaugurate an era of peace and justice–which they called the Kingdom of God.
But the savior they got wasn’t a military hero, riding into Jerusalem in a chariot at the head of an army. Instead, he was a peasant from the sticks, the son of a construction worker, riding in on a donkey. He wasn’t followed by an army, but rather by a crowd composed largely of the poor and marginalized–servants, women, children, lepers, fishermen. The only crown he got was a crown of thorns. Instead of casting out the Romans, they mocked him, tortured him, stripped him naked and publicly executed him.
But I believe with all my heart that something very special happened on that first Easter morning. And no matter how unlikely it often seems, I know that the world and everything in it will be redeemed and made right.
And even in the heart of empire, sometimes we might notice a knowing glance or a little nod from another. Evidence that we’re not as alone as it may sometimes seem.
Your kingdom come.