It is very easy to criticise James and John for wanting places of honour next to Jesus, in their vision of his Kingdom. But if you consider them in the context of their own time, they believed Jesus when he said that some with him in Palestine would not die before they’d seen the Kingdom of God come with power. They were looking to secure their future – a very understandable human concern. The reality, as it turned out, was that they all died – including Jesus – and the Kingdom evidently hadn’t come.
Where perhaps James and John did go wrong, though, was in not getting a handle on Jesus’ subverting of common notions of power and authority. For him, these had nothing to do with thrones, places of honour and hierarchies: quite the reverse, in fact. Jesus said to James and John: you are to be different. The Gospel speaks of a new understanding of power built on service, and strength being found in apparent weakness. What a pity that those prevailing understandings of human power and authority – as opposed to Jesus’ more radical ideas – eventually found their way into the institutional church, as it later became. Many would argue it all went wrong for Christianity when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For similar reasons, some might argue today for the disestablishment of the Church of England. There are many potential pitfalls when religion is perceived as an arm of the state, too close for comfort to those powerful institutions which hold sway over the lives of so many people. Unfortunately, for too much of its own history – perhaps especially in Western Christendom – the retention of power and control have been fairly central to the church’s life. Though that hasn’t entirely disappeared, it has certainly waned nowadays – in line with the influence of the church itself. In the newer cultures of rationalism, secularism and suspicion we inhabit today, the church often finds itself – often through its own fault – lumped alongside other institutions people have become disillusioned with, whether it be – among others – the political establishment, the police, the financial sector, the press or the BBC.
Had he been speaking in our society over the past few years, Jesus’ observations might have included: You know that some of the bankers of today lord it over the economy, while making sure their personal nests remain well-feathered; and newspaper owners, ignoring the consequences, allow people’s grief to be invaded; and the power and influence you accord to celebrities can lead to widespread abuse of some innocent and vulnerable people. In the spirit of the Gospel, you can almost hear Jesus saying to his followers now what he said to James and John back then: Change your thinking! You are to be different. What Jesus says confronts the way we conduct our human affairs to the very core – from international conflicts, the global economy, aid for the poor, the pressures on the environment, and the world media, through to local politics, and the ways people treat each other at work, at home and in their neighbourhoods. Wherever people are prone to dominate or exploit others, or the wider environment, that insistent voice continues to say: Think again: it shall not be so with you. The Jesus philosophy instead urges that humility and service are to mark the way we order our society and our relationships with each other. And that real strength, paradoxically, is made perfect in weakness. And that love is the sum total of all things.
How willing are we to take Jesus’ radicalism on board, especially when it makes demands on us personally? It sounds all well and good in theory, but are we really up for modelling our lives on Jesus as a servant and all that might entail? And, in the church, how far do our common life, our structures and our decision-making mirror the picture in today’s Gospel? The traditional view of servanthood implies weakness, dependence, passivity, and lack of choice. A servant is one who has to comply obediently with the authority of a superior. In various areas of life, including, tragically, the church, we have in recent years been made aware of just how much damage can sometimes been done by those who have abused their positions of influence and the trust of those over whom they have exercised power. People have been demeaned, humiliated and left scarred – physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually – because they have been told to turn the other cheek, even when that leads to further violence or exploitation. They have been taught to go the extra mile, even when that mile never ends. They have been taught to honour people in authority over them, and not to question them. Vulnerability, hospitality and generosity have been abused in what too often turned out to be misplaced obedience.
By complete contrast, Jesus’ idea of servanthood implies true freedom. From the evidence we have, Jesus asked many questions and was obedient only to God: not to the religious establishment, not to the political authorities, not to his disciples. His perception of his own role is summed up in his statement that ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ This is exemplified in the washing of his disciples’ feet.
Jesus came as a servant, but he refused the doormat label. His approach led to him being tormented, persecuted, ostracised and, in the end, killed, for his new vision of power and authority being made real in love and service. His philosophy, as the Gospel makes clear, included a radical embrace of the routinely rejected and marginalised, a root and branch challenge to the way his society functioned, and a subversive questioning of his own religious tradition – all summed up in the priority of love for God being exemplified in love for neighbour. This is no wishy-washy love. It is a tough love which demands that people be willing to re-shape the world around them in terms of economics, politics and justice, with a particular emphasis on the poor and the excluded; to challenge the priorities of their society and its authorities; to ask questions of the status quo rather than merely acquiesce to it; and to reform their religious life in order to prioritise basic humanity, rather than dry, self-serving rules and regulations. And it may well prove costly. In terms of some recent events, I think Jesus would have harsh words for those who abuse their authority, not least for those who are supposed to be trusted pastors of the flock. Also, I cannot for one moment see Jesus condoning the church opting out, or seeking exemption from, human rights and equality legislation. Or Christians practising discrimination against minorities in the way they run their business concerns. The Jesus mission is far too important to be surrendered to skewed notions of authority, or to supposed theological purists, or to biblical bullies.
Above all, the Gospel calls all of us to a personal transformation, which in turn can lead to a transformation of the society we inhabit. Our service must be grounded in love, and our ultimate authority is the God Christians say is love, if it is to be true to the Jesus of the Gospels. Without love, as St. Paul famously said, religion is nothing but clanging gongs and crashing cymbals; hard voices speaking harsh words. But, with love, everything can potentially be transformed – societies, institutions (churches included) – politics, economics, individual people – and, ultimately, the world. And lest we think this is beyond the sphere of our tiny influence, the reality is that it begins with each of us, right here, right now, for, in the Jesus economy, even the smallest act of love and service is the work of God.