The Way of a Servant -- A Lectionary Reflection
The Way of a Servant
Everything in our culture runs against the idea of being a servant. We all, if we’re honest, chafe at the idea of sublimating our own egos to that of others. This is especially true for white males like me, who are expected to lead and to control. A candidate for President who exhibits softness and deference is seen as weak. Even women politicians must be driven by a degree of testosterone. We understand that this is the way of the world, but is it the way of Jesus? Could it be that Jesus expects something radically different from us?
As we contemplate these kinds of questions, which I myself struggle with, we encounter a set of texts that invite us to consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Who is he and what is his demeanor? There is in each of these three texts a focus on both suffering and servanthood as marks of faithfulness. But interestingly enough the point isn’t that we should be subservient or be doormats, but that we can find a sense of power in service. It is, therefore, a call to reframe the nature of human relationships. Power isn’t found in dominance, but in relationships. But, I need to add a caveat here because some of our cultural expectations have sought to keep women and persons of color (at least in Western European and American contexts) in a subservient role, so a call to servanthood has a different connotation for those who traditionally have been placed in subservient roles by their culture.
Taking into consideration these caveats, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, the suffering servant of God?
The reading from Isaiah 53 will be familiar to many Christians. If nothing else we’ll see in it words that appear in Handel’s Messiah. Consider a chorus like:
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows!
(Isaiah 53: 4-5)
Scholarship has offered numerous interpretations of the identity of this suffering servant – from Hezekiah to Israel, but for Christians, this passage has helped define Jesus’ identity. He is the suffering servant who has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” It is by his wounds or stripes that we are healed. Often this is taken in support of theologies of substitutionary atonement, but we needn’t read it in this way. Rather, we can see in it a reminder that unjust suffering has the potential to turn things upside down. What we expect to see happen, is reversed by the one who suffers. And those who embrace the cause, and join with the cause, and do so not passively, but powerfully, even if non-violently and even if it involves suffering, can turn the tide. We saw this happen in the Civil Rights Movement. When the nation watched as police in Selma and Birmingham used water cannons, tear gas, and dogs to deter protesters, its conscience was pricked, and change began to happen. Although verses 10 and 11 suggest that God would crush and cause to suffer the servant, we must be careful in how we use these verses to define God and God’s purpose. Although I can’t abide the idea that God causes the innocent to suffer, I can see God bring victory as the innocent turn suffering into power to change the world, so that light will shine and wounds will heal, guilt will be addressed and a new day will dawn. For Christians this passage helps define our experience and expectations of the cross. It’s a reminder that the way of the servant isn’t easy. But consider the good that comes as the one who suffers unjustly, pleads on behalf of the oppressor, and thus restores the oppressor to right relationship with God and with the rest of humanity.
The text from Hebrews follows a similar pattern. One suffers, all are made clean. In this passage the author speaks of high priests – those who offer sacrifices for sins committed – and notes their human frailty. They are human beings, after all, and like Aaron, they fall short of their calling. As a result, they offer sacrifices not only for the other, but also for themselves. But there’s something else present in the passage. To change this dynamic, a different sort of priest is required, a priest whose calling isn’t inherited, but is by appointment from God. And this priest, a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, restores relationships with God and humanity through obedience that includes suffering as a servant of God. Indeed, this priest learns obedience through this suffering, and thus is made perfect. From this, this high priest whom God raises up becomes the source of salvation for all who obey. To this one, God says – you’re my son and you’re a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110: 1, 4). From this position, this priest offers up prayers, requests, cries and tears – as sacrifices to the one able to save from death. Why is this? Because of his godly devotion. Though a son and thus liberated from such a need, he showed us a way of obedience in his suffering. Those who follow him and suffer with him, they receive their salvation. As a result, of this act of this high priest, there is no more need for intermediaries between God and humanity. There’s no need for a top down hierarchy. No need for frail humans to hold the keys of salvation. The way has been paved, but it does require of us obedience to the ways of God – it involves being the follower of God’s suffering servant.
As we come to the reading from the Gospel of Mark, we’ve already been made aware of the role of God’s suffering servant in changing the world dynamics. Through the suffering servanthood of Christ, the wounds are healed and salvation is made present for those who walk in his ways. In Mark we encounter two of Jesus’ disciples making a demand upon him. They’ve not yet learned the lesson of servanthood. They look at the world from a hierarchical view, and if Jesus is the king, the ruler, then they want to have top seats at the table. Like the old pictures of the Soviet leadership standing on the Kremlin wall, they want to be seen standing close to Jesus. They want their pictures taken so everyone will know that they’re the go-to persons. They want the portfolios of State and Defense, the top spots in the Cabinet. In contrast to the high priest in Hebrews 5, they promote themselves, to which Jesus responds by questioning their own resolve. Do they understand what they’re asking for? Can they drink from his cup and experience his baptism? While they assure him they can do this, in the end Jesus says that while they will, as his followers drink from his cup and share in his baptism (of suffering), the decision as to who stands where is in the hands of another. Those spots have already been filled. In other words, this isn’t to be the thing you reach for. Don’t put yourself above others, seeking top billing. That’s not easy to do. As I write this we’re in the midst of a Presidential election. You have to have a lot of gall to run for President of the United States. You have to believe yourself able and worthy to lead a powerful nation. Not everyone is equipped for this responsibility. Not everyone has the necessary ego. And it’s clear that being President and being a servant aren’t necessarily compatible.
Jesus understands the way of the world and declares that the way of the world isn’t the way of God’s realm. Not surprisingly the other ten disciples are upset that James and John pushed themselves forward, clearly believing that they are better candidates – don’t you think yourself to be more worthy? Well, that’s the way of the world, but not the way of Jesus. For Jesus, authority is wielded not in a top-down fashion. Unlike the world’s leaders, the leaders in the kingdom of God don’t assert authority over the other. Instead, the one who seeks to be great will be a servant – and surely Isaiah 53 is a defining text for Jesus. If you want to be first, then be slave. Why? Well, Jesus offers the answer – the Son of Man or the Human One “doesn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (vs. 45 CEB).
Yes, this is a different way of living. It’s surely not the American way. It’s not “peace through strength.” No, it’s peace through service. It’s peace through laying down one’s life. It’s not an easy road. Indeed, it’s a road less traveled, a road I, myself, hesitate to trod. It is, however, the road Jesus takes.