s141g00 Somerton Park Sunday 29 22/10/2000
"slave of all." Mark 10:44
I am grateful to have been asked, a couple of weeks ago for a sermon on Mark 9.35 where Jesus said to the disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all". It was the Sunday when I preached on the text from Hebrews about the tongue - rather than the passage from Mark. As I say, I was grateful for the question for it has now lead me to realise (for the first time) that Mark is unique in that in both this and today's saying - he alone recalls Jesus bidding us, not just to be servants or slaves, but slaves to all. If scholars are correct in their assessment that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark's gospel in front of them, it is significant that both omit this reference to "all" on both occasions. It is a principle of textural analysis, that the hardest reading is most likely the most accurate, as later copyists "correct" or "soften" difficult sayings. So perhaps Matthew and Luke found the "slave OF ALL" a bit difficult, as well we might too.
I suspect that few of us would read the words "slave of all" and see in them any good news. Not unnaturally we would be daunted by the prospect. We are not brought up to regard a life of subservience to anyone as at all desirable - let alone all people. We are geared up to succeed, and that rarely is viewed in relation to serving others. The fact that many people live unremarkable lives quite happily can escape us.
I suppose, one of the usual sorts of questions people ask is how certain can I be that I will get into heaven? I was witness to a conversation recently about some young female type Australians who had converted to Islam because of the certainty of the answers they perceived Islam to give to them. But, reflecting on this conversation, I suddenly realised that for James and John this was not the question at all. They had no doubt that their entry into the kingdom was assured; their concern was to be "up front" there.
I doubt that humanity has changed all that much, and that the modern concern with the likelihood of salvation is nothing new. We can assume that the people around Jesus questioned their own likelihood for salvation. So the rich young man in last week's gospel reading questions Jesus: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Clearly therefore James and John had got another message from Jesus and that message was that far from eternal life being an exclusive club, they had realised that all were welcomed. And I suspect they really didn't mind all other people being welcomed, just as long as they were in positions of power, status and authority over the masses.
I think we should not gloss over this transition too quickly. For all the inappropriateness of the request by James and John, we find it inappropriate because we (with 20/20 hindsight) know about the cross and resurrection. At the time of this conversation, Jesus was talking about this in theory, which is quite different from having experienced it. What James and John had experienced first hand at this time was how widely Jesus mixed, how readily he accepted the offerings of all sorts of people. They experienced how little Jesus used the possibility of salvation as a motivator (either as a stick or a carrot) to get people to follow him or to support his "cause". Indeed instead of telling the rich young man to part with his riches to support Jesus and the disciples, he tells him to give his riches to others who are in need.
Getting into heaven is not the difficult thing, living with others here in this life is far more difficult.
Our reading from Hebrews talks about the office of a priest, and in some ways we in humanity (to a greater or lesser extent) are still suffering from a legacy of "Father knows best" - clergy included! And I guess that some would think that clergy will have positions of authority in eternal life. And I have sometimes had cause to suspect that some lay people envy the authority they perceive the clergy to have. The reality of course is far different, the person with the real authority in an Anglican parish is the past Rector :-) (Though by now perhaps that's become a little less true, here at St Philip's.)
And, despite the smile with which I say it, in some ways this is a good thing. We are not swayed by every new fad that the present incumbent brings in. We use our heads, we weigh and measure the person in the position, and after some thought, we take on board what we find helpful, and disregard the rest.
As I say, often I think people think that I have got influence over other people in the congregation, that I've only got to say the word, and others will give this or that, will attend this or that fundraiser. Yet by the logic that the only person in authority in this parish is the past Rector's decrees, it follows that I simply don't have that sort of influence :-)
As a parish priest, it is a very interesting trick to be inspiring, motivating, empowering, leading as well as correcting, people who, in the end give their labour and money quite voluntarily. It is as well that everyone realises that everyone gives what they do, quite voluntarily, and so everyone, not just the priest, has to respect others, not trying to push others around or trying to have others push others around - being the power behind the throne ...
I was delighted to read something said by an Iranian woman: "Iranians hate to be told that something is forbidden and will automatically seek to undermine the prevailing edicts which curtail freedom - edicts about alcohol or dress, for example. "First the Shah forced women to remove the chador, so many started to wear it. Then the mullahs told us we must wear it so we try not to whenever we can. ... When will they realise that Iranians will not be forced into anything? ..."" (Eureka Street Sept 2000 p 24) Of course we are all tarred by the same brush. One cannot justifiably demand to be free from outside interference, yet want the clergy to tell others what to do or not to do. It just doesn't work!
On the other hand, being critical of everything the present minister has to offer, inevitably will blind those who are critical, to the good that is happening, right before their eyes. It may also be a symptom of never seeing to good in anyone around us, and that is indeed sad.
How often are clergy told: "You can't please all the people all the time" and I wonder if this in reality means: "Just please us (who pay you) - and forget everyone else ..." So this passage is interpreted that the priest has to do what the congregation wants. But I, as well as everyone here, am called to be slaves to the world.
It is not just me as your priest, it is all of us; even if as a priest, it is often you supporting the ministry I exercise to all people - to others outside this congregation.
How do we, as the Church, exercise the command to be "servant of all"? For us does this mean "telling those who don't come to church how they should or should not live their lives - because we know what's good for them" or "servant of the few - those sitting in the pews - the few Anglicans - the few Christians ..."
A slave does not tell the master what he or she should want, how he or she should live their lives. A slave waits to hear and try to do the other's bidding. And often the hardest thing to do is to wait. Historically the Church has had all the answers and little or no time to listen to the questions.
On the other hand, of course we do know what everyone wants, and that is respect and courtesy, even if, or especially when, others are different to us.
However, God's kingdom will not be advanced by those God loves being doormats for others either. For again this is just another way of someone else saying to us: "Fulfil my needs and forget others ..." So being "slaves of all" in fact also protects us from being slaves to each and every individual who might press their insistent demands upon us. We may well perceive particular individuals need to grow up, to find their happiness from within themselves rather than ever looking for others to supply it.
There are actually few things more fulfilling in life than realising that we can be of assistance to someone else, even if it is only in being a sympathetic ear.
So rather being a difficult saying, actually being "slave to all" has a good deal of good news involved in it. It brings dignity and self esteem to those who try to live this way, as well as an inherent protection from being abused by individuals.
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