The other day my wife and I heard a distinguished theologian describe a visit to one of those Islands in the Pacific, Tuvalu, where every so often storm surges inundate the Island. He described how when such a storm is on the way, mothers place children in those polystyrene bins that the Australians call “eskies” and we call chilly bins. At least this gives the babies a chance of avoiding drowning. He told us how the hotel where he had been staying was also flooded from time to time and that he felt more secure because his bedroom was in the second story.
Then he posed a tricky question. Clearly the Islanders were not those involved in some of the actions that might be thought of as messing up the climate, and maybe affecting the storm surges. But who, the theologian asked, should care about what was happening to the Island? And if it comes to that, would the Islander who asked the question: “are you my neighbour?” better off to be asking a Christian or a non Christian, asking that question of a minister – a bishop – a lay member of a Church – or for that matter someone who doesn’t even believe the right stuff?
Surely to that Islander, the neighbour is the one who does something to help while title, religious affiliation, formal beliefs or any one of a number of measures of self–importance count for very little.
When we pick up today’s gospel story, Jesus’ answer to the disciples is not surprising. Here we have Jesus with a good part of his mission behind him, with anywhere up to three years on the roads, his disciples in tow, watching him living out his compassion, with his focus on the poor, the victims of injustice and the socially rejected – and making plain his total opposition to shows of power and artificial piety. Remember his warnings to those who seek the limelight in the name of religion – but then – perhaps right when he least expects it, from his own camp so to speak, these brothers James and John suddenly get it into their heads that the time for their place in the sun might have arrived.
Saying they were wrong is one thing, but in view of what society teaches about power and respect, we need to be careful about identifying just exactly why it is they were wrong.
I don’t think James and John were doing anything much different to those of us today, who think because we have happened upon a particular church, to have become familiar with a particular set of doctrines and have heard what seems to us to be the right message, that this somehow makes us more worthy people. If it comes to that, it brings to mind the sort of discussion on the validity of beliefs that I used to hear (and I confess, sometimes took part in) – as an undergraduate at University. Raised voices and sometimes even anger that others cannot recognize our obvious truth – and yet a total blindness to noticing we were not being our message.
The disciples could hardly claim they were unaware what Jesus had been teaching. To the extent Jesus was like other itinerant preachers, he may well have preached variants on the same themes a number of times. As would be the case in many churches where there are regular congregation members with the same preacher week after week, the disciples could not help become familiar with his ideas at least at a theoretical level. Since the gospels were not written by Jesus, it was presumably the disciples, remembering as best they could, those many times retold stories and parables, stories that shaped the subsequent records and formed the basis for the gospels. Yet here is the important issue. Familiarity with the message does not mean that it has taken root in the heart.
A televangelist may have a viewing audience of thousands and a clear gospel message but if the newspapers are to be believed, more than one televangelist, despite knowing the right words to say has been guilty of fraud or sexual impropriety.
A priest can have studied the scriptures at the highest level and still be guilty of child molestation.
The Norwegian mass murderer claimed strong conservative Christian beliefs, just as the suicide bomber can claim to be true to the teachings of the Koran.
But being able to recite some key stories and teachings of Jesus is only ever at best a small part of the Christian journey and certainly is not some sort of talisman that automatically wards off other baser instincts. Happening upon – and even passing on the gospel message does not make us more worthy.
So we come back to the Zebedee brothers – no doubt admiring of Jesus – and yet with an unexpected gap in their understanding of what he represented.
I don’t think we are in a position to be too hard on them. There is hardly a group in society that does not set up visible hierarchies. Certainly it happens in Churches, which is why there is a Pope and his Cardinals, An Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishops, and Church Presidents, clergy with different ranks and responsibilities, and even various forms of lay leadership in leaders meetings and their denominational equivalents. Perhaps it also needs spelling out that James and John in their desire for more power were probably far from unusual and their ambitions might even seem natural and sensible to many.
For example, power is clearly needed to accomplish any purpose, so it wasn’t the pursuit of power per se that was inappropriate. Yet power is relative and comes in many forms. The power to give meaning and purpose to life is hardly the same as the power to dispatch the rebel. What Jesus was in essence saying when he rebuked James and John, was that they were seeking a totally inappropriate form of power to go with his teaching. As he put it, they did not know what they were asking.
Some like Caesar Augustus derived their power from military might and political influence, and the respect Augustus won was a respect partly born out of seeing how he dealt with those who crossed him. Strangely however, this is a curiously ephemeral power. The dictator or general may be able to wreak tremendous damage to his foes yet Empires designed to live a thousand years often sink as fast as they appear. Remember the thousand year Reich that Hitler was trying to establish in 1935.
After a most dramatic rise and many, many spectacular battles involving a good part of the people of the world – ten years later all that was left was the rubble and dead bodies.
Shortly after Hitler’s downfall Stalin’s massive power disappeared almost as quickly despite the millions he had murdered in Siberia.
On the other hand, the genuinely humble religious leader may be totally at the mercy of his or her enemies but curiously their message of forgiveness, compassion and actions of servant-hood may live on for millennia. When Jesus walked the dusty paths of Palestine, the world was almost totally unaware. Only three of the contemporary historians even mentioned him and then only in passing, and in not in a particularly flattering way. Yet through the centuries his quiet influence has grown until nearly the whole world is aware of his message. And this is not true simply of Jesus. Those early saints whose lives could not have been more humble have sometimes started orders of followers that still continue to exert their quiet influence centuries later whereas in that same time many mighty kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen – some almost without trace. In terms of influence – isn’t what Jesus and the saints represent real power?
It is also a message which is taking a long time for many to comprehend. I remember back in 2012 there was certainly satisfaction that recent sanctions against Iran were destroying that country’s economy. Now Mr Trump says that failed policy is worth a second try. Military incursions and sanctions are standard Western responses to any nation threatening Western interests. Yet there is a fine line to be drawn. As another pacifist mystic leader from another religion, Mahatma Gandhi once put it: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Why is it that our church doesn’t push the same message. Jesus with his preferred course of action – forgiving 70 times 7 – is not favoured as part of any nation’s current international policies.
Perhaps those who believe Jesus to the point where they wish to follow his teachings should be up front. Surely the Jesus way at least suggests sooner or later the protagonists in any conflict or stand-off must come round to thinking that forgiveness, understanding and care for one another provides a much more stable long term solution to any long term confrontation, whether it be between super-powers or even only between family members estranged by a dimly remembered family feud.
While most of us can probably recognise the eternal truth of what Jesus was saying, his words about servant-hood may make us a mite uneasy if we think of them addressed to ourselves rather than just to James and John. To paraphrase Stephen Prothero in his essay Separate Truths: to move too easily from a religion that only acknowledges its gentle mystics and awe inspiring Church architecture yet turn a blind eye to the very human faults of self serving ambition and bigotry is simply not honest – any more than it would be to admire the almsgiving and disciplined worship in Islam without acknowledging the suicide bombers and fanatics. As Prothero put it, we need to understand religious people as they are – not just at the best but also at their worst. If we claim to follow Jesus, we ourselves are self-classified as religious people and honesty should help us recognise our internal struggles between the saint and the sinner.
There is a mind-shift required from setting aside personal advancement – or being inward focussed -to the notion of attempting to live a life of servant-hood – in other words starting to care more about others than oneself. This is radical and even counter intuitive – but is almost certainly at the heart of the Christian challenge. We are programmed at birth to seek our own advantage. In nature this individual self seeking might mean the difference between life and death. And to be fair many never move past this inward focus. But Jesus came teaching a faith designed to benefit the whole community rather than the individual. For this to happen, it is not theoretical learning that is required. Rather what Jesus calls servant-hood is a shift from active self-interest to genuinely thinking first about others ….starting to treat our neighbours as every bit as important as ourselves.
Some of us no doubt learn this message of servant-hood when we first encounter Christ, or perhaps when we meet someone who conveys this same sense of care by word and action. For others of us (and I place myself with this group) the moment of enlightenment may takes years – or even remain an unattainable mystery. Remember the Sons of Zebedee were only guilty of a very human and dominant weakness, that of self concern. Since we probably know ourselves best of all – and since we know there is something of both the saint and the sinner in each of us, the question is ….where are we on that continuum? And for this coming week when the challenge to be a neighbour occurs, will it be servant-hood or self interest that shapes our thinking?