‘Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher”, they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.”
“You don’t know what you are asking”, Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” “We can”, they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to whom they have already been prepared.”
‘When the ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
As the founder of Utilitarianism, a particularly influential 19th Century political theory, you could argue that Jeremy Bentham was entitled to be proud of himself. His critique of social values, and pursuit of ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ was already beginning to shape the thinking of political leaders of his day – and as it turns out has continued to do so up to the present. But leaving instructions in his Last Will and Testament for his body to be embalmed, stuffed, dressed in a suit and placed in a glass case at University College London was perhaps a step too far.
And his acolytes have not stopped the posthumous grand-standing there. Each year this ‘auto-icon’ is rolled out for a meeting of the College Council, where Mr Bentham is recorded in the minutes as ‘Present, but not voting’. This hubristic tale is mitigated somewhat by the frequent student pranks over the years since in which his head has been repeatedly pinched and ransomed back to the University. But the impression of an ego writ large remains.
In our world, what we tend to value most are honour, power, wealth, beauty, authority, and yes, intellect. These are the things that seem to make the world go round. But these things in themselves are empty. At root, they’re an attempt to remake ourselves in the image of God, to claim even just a scintilla of his Glory.
I travel regularly to China, and it’s a fascinating country. Chinese culture values good hospitality, respect for authority and the importance of relational capital. One of the ways in which this is reflected is in the etiquette surrounding hosting guests to a meal. The table is always round so as not to offend guests by placing one person at the head of the table. And yet this nicety has been infiltrated by a convention whereby the Host is still given the ‘head’ of the table (the chair facing the door) and the most-honoured guest will sit in the seat to his right-hand side, with the second most-honoured to his left and so on. The elevation of the Host and the Honoured Guest continues with further etiquette, including serving special courses either before the other guests or to them alone, an ‘honour’ which I have at times had to face, as the picture below testifies:
In the startling encounter from Mark’s Gospel, above, we see Jesus subverting this human will to power in his response to the egotistical aspirations of James and John. Incredibly, as the most powerful being in the universe, Jesus nevertheless submits himself to the authority of God the Father, in his assertion that even he cannot offer the right and left-hand seats to his disciples.
And, in this subversion, Jesus is not advocating a simple changing of the guard. This is not a spiritual coup d’etat in which the powerful are overthrown in order that their erstwhile subjects can take their places at the top table. It’s a root and branch revolution, a completely new way to live in the world. He is turning the world’s normative power dynamics on their head, insisting that the last should become first, and that his followers should be ‘the slave of all’. Strong words.
In a sense, I don’t blame James and John for their audacious request. In fact, it kind of reassures me. The Disciples have been lionised throughout Church history for the contribution that they made to the spread of the Gospel, and quite right too. But in encounters like this – and in basically everything that Peter did – we see the humanity of the Disciples. These were no Uber-Christians who would put us to shame with their holiness. They hadn’t got it quite yet: despite Jesus repeated teachings on his preference for the weak, the poor, the abandoned, and despite the fact that they’d actually lived alongside him for years. On a more positive note, and to their credit, you can’t fault the faith of the two brothers. They certainly believed that Jesus was who he said he was; otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted their time angling for a place at the top table.
But, ultimately, the Gospel is the great equaliser – the mountains shall be laid flat and the valleys raised up – and through it each of us become equal before God, taking on our full identity of the imago dei, the image of God. Our recognition of God’s authority goes hand in hand with our recognition of the equal and inestimable value of every human being. Yet so often we miss both.
This is not only the tragedy of the powers that be in the world; it has also been the tragedy of the Church itself. And yet again this comes back to our flawed human nature. Like the Fleetwood Mac song, we want to ‘Go our own way’ when the truth, in the words Bob Dylan so famously growled, is that you’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Sadly we often only realise this when the pretension that we’re in charge of our own life falls away. An illness, natural disaster or accident strikes, and suddenly we become aware of our own powerlessness. All the things that we put our stock in – intellect, beauty, wealth, even human relationships – can’t cocoon us from the messy reality of life. As the author Kurt Vonnegut sagely advises in the song ‘Everybody wear Sunscreen’, “maybe you’ll have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse – but you never know when either one might run out.”
If you’ve travelled beyond Western Europe and North America, you’ll probably know what I mean. Oh what I’d sometimes give for an old-fashioned British queue in some airport arrivals halls! Everyone for themselves doesn’t cover it. Or the lifeless, mirror-shaded, eyes of the gun-toting Cameroonian immigration official who’s determined to exercise his authority before he decides to let you enter the country. Or the one on one interrogation and baggage search at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, knowing that just one mention of a visit to the wrong part of the country will see you end up in a room with nothing but a box of rubber gloves and a border guard for company. And in truth, these are relatively minor reminders of how easily our will to power is diluted.
So if, despite He-Man’s claims, we aren’t really Masters of the Universe, what are we to do? Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus dealt with a similar situation. The Disciples were once again letting their hubris get the better of them and were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Again, Jesus taught them that if anyone wanted to be first then he must become last, the servant of all. Jesus also taught that we should both have a faith like children and treat one another as we do little children. What might our world look like if we took the same approach? If politicians, journalists, soldiers, police officers, bankers, and we ourselves put others first, regardless of their status? What would it look like if we didn’t place our ultimate hope in our own power and were instead childlike in our motivation, if our attitude was innocent, simple, vulnerable even, and above all loving?
This is the world that Jesus calls us to make: it’s a world in which we serve one another, where we have a healthy distaste for the trappings of wealth and power, where each person is viewed as having inherent and equal worth, where the least and the last are lifted up by the rest and given the place of honour.
The Good News is that we are not expected to do all of this in our own power. And that’s the wonder of the Gospel: that Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Romans 3, 21-24