Matthew 20:17-28 – On Being a Servant

Jesus bronze sculpture washing feet
Bronze statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, Pittsburgh, Texas

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that 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 your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NIV)

Today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is the very description of not being on the same page. There were two variant responses from Jesus and from everyone else because there were two different agendas.

Jesus was quite clear about how things were going to shake out. Torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead for him. The disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads. It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It is more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like. Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

So, let us be perfectly clear about what that power really is: Grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace. Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way). No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for selfish power.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any kind of leadership is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world. And, if Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into their Old Testament, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, King David trafficked in grace. When David was at the pinnacle of power his first act as King was to look over the kingdom and see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and former family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not: reliance on making and calling-in favors; overinflated egos; unrealistic expectations; suspicion; judgment, arrogance; an insistence on recognition; compulsive control over everything and everyone; unilateral decision-making; shaming of others; hoarding of resources; coups; in-fighting; hatred; and, a demand of rights. We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet, we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ. In contrast to this, grace exists.

Grace is the deep magic which resides within the universe.

Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant: attending to the needs of all persons; freely consulting and collaborating with others; focusing on responsibility; loving discipline; embracing accountability; pursuing truth; sharing power and resources; encouraging others; giving generously; and, looking for ways to show mercy.

In this Christian season of Eastertide, the Church focuses on exploring new life, and new ways of being with one another and the world. The old life is consumed with unmerciful uses of position and power. New life brings a shift to a gracious means of wielding such authority. Yes, it will likely bring some short-term suffering. It will hurt. Grace, however, results in a longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Click Make Me a Servant by the Maranatha Singers and allow it to be our prayer today and everyday.

2 Samuel 2:1-11

            Power is never a neutral thing.  Power is either used to further a personal or special interest group agenda by using its considerable weight, or power is employed for the benefit of others in order to ensure the common good of all.  Ancient kings held nearly absolute power, and many were corrupted by its addictive allure to hold onto it at any cost.  So, when David became the king of Judah he immediately demonstrated why he was going to be a king that applied power differently than most earthly kings.
            The previous king, Saul, had been seduced by power and sought to hold that power by any means possible.  This meant David was a rival and had to go.  A large chunk of chapters in the book of 1 Samuel are given to a cat and mouse act of Saul chasing David, never quite getting ahold of him.  Now Saul is dead, killed in battle.  Any run-of-the-mill new king would act quickly and decisively to consolidate power and snuff out any potential faction to the throne.  But, instead, David’s initial response after Saul’s death was to inquire of the Lord and determine specifically what he should do according to God’s will.
            We should not pass over this detail too quickly because this was an unprecedented disposition for a king to adopt.  King David did not simply make presumptions about what to do.  Not only did David allow the men loyal to the deceased King Saul to live, he blessed them and actively sought to do them good.  This is precisely why David was a man after God’s own heart:  he acted in a manner that reflected the character of God.  God shows steadfast love and faithfulness to people; David showed the same grace and commitment toward others.  God woos people to himself through kindness instead of throwing his weight around and shoving people into the kingdom; David acted deftly and wisely toward others who did not readily acknowledge him as king through blessing instead of misusing his power.
            If we want to be people of influence; if we desire to see the kingdom of God expand; if we seek to have the church grow; then, we must exercise our given power in ways consistent with how King David used his power.  Prayer, discernment, and listening to the Spirit of God are the means of the right use of the resurrection power provided for us.
            Mighty God, you have demonstrated your power in many ways in creating life and giving new life.  I look to you in all things so that my words and actions will reflect your grace and kindness toward everyone I encounter, whether they are for me or against me.  Through the strong name of Jesus I pray.  Amen.

1 Kings 3:5-14

            Solomon was a very wise king.  In this Old Testament lesson for today we understand the reason for this.  At the outset of his reign Solomon could have asked for anything from God; he might have chosen to focus on the perquisites or the power of kingship.  But instead Solomon asked for wisdom, and this pleased God.  “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this, your great people?”  This was Solomon’s prayer, and all these millennia later he still has the reputation of being the wisest king that ever lived.
            As a pastor, I think there is no greater prayer I could pray than this.  Rather than choosing to focus prayers and ministry on bigger budgets, more attendance, and adding on building space, I can make the choice to pray for wisdom.  Solomon’s request was borne out of a clear realization of who God is (the One who shows steadfast love) and who he himself is (“I am but like a little child”).  God’s greatness and Solomon’s humility collided in a wonderful prayer for discernment to carry out God’s will on earth.
            In this time of year in which it is vogue to make New Year’s resolutions based upon the individual’s willpower, let us take a different approach.  Let us pray and invite God to do the kind of deep change in our lives that is needed in order to live well and do God’s will.  May we pray for discernment to serve well, and ask for wisdom to be good stewards of our callings from God.
            O LORD, my God, give me a mind and heart of wisdom so that I might rightly discern good and evil, right and wrong, and the best decisions to made in every situation.  I choose to walk in your ways to the glory of Jesus Christ through the power of your Spirit.  Amen.

Nehemiah 8:1-12

            Under the leadership of Nehemiah, many of the Israelite exiles returned to Jerusalem from captivity.  Nehemiah did an incredible work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem so that the people were safe once again.  But that was only the physical dimension of the massive rebuilding effort; the people needed to be spiritually restored, as well.  The priest and scribe, Ezra, was at the forefront of a great revival.  At the center of the Jewish renewal was the Law of God.  The people gathered in order to hear Ezra read God’s Word to them from early morning to midday.  While Ezra read the Book of the Law, other priests were among the throng of people and helped them to understand it while they listened.  As the ESV puts it, these priests “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
            The people clearly needed help in making sense of God’s Word.  And as they understood the meaning of what was read, they wept and repented and dedicated themselves afresh to faithful living before their God. The need for all of God’s people to make sense of the Bible is no less true today.  The path to living intelligent and informed Christian lives will come by having clear insight into God’s Word so that we may walk with clarity and confidence, knowing the will of God in all things.
            A craving to know the revealed words of God is at the heart of any church revitalization.  An ardent desire to understand the Bible will be at the center of spiritual revival in our own time and place.  A longing for knowledge of the Scriptures is imperative to contemporary renewal.  Committing ourselves to a daily regimen of Scripture-reading is most necessary to a healthy spiritual life.  Teachers who help bring God’s Word to light are a great gift to the Body of Christ.
            O God, raise an entire generation of people who seek to know you and your Word.  Set apart gifted men and women for your service so that there will be teachers who help others make sense of what you want us to do.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.