Here Jesus is speaking about following him by becoming a servant, being a slave. It would have been very difficult to hear this teaching in his own day, It is even more difficult for us, here in this culture. We know how Jesus’ teaching and also St. Paul’s writing about servanthood and slavery were twisted in the most appalling ways to justify the most cruel, ignominious practice of slavery of African peoples in our own land. And then there is the subsequent, unconscionable residue of discrimination that has carried into this very day. Hearing Jesus talk about becoming a servant, being a slave-for-Jesus, is very difficult to hear, and should be, given our own history.
But Jesus’ words also would have been exceedingly difficult to hear in his own day. Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels and New Testament letters occurred within the cultural practice of slavery, both Jewish and Roman. Many of the events and teachings in the Gospels reflect the presence of slaves, especially in the household.[i] People became slaves for several reasons: for one, to voluntarily be protected from creditors; or because of birth; or because of purchase (slaves being commodities); or because of conquest, i.e., capturing and enslaving the losers in battle being a form of booty. How slaves were treated and the work they did was as varied as their masters.
For Jesus to use this metaphor was turning things upside down. He is surrounded by the occupation of the Roman Empire which retained power like a pyramid. At the top, were the 600 Roman Senators who held property, and privilege, and pomp, and power. These are the rulers about whom Jesus is speaking, the “rulers[who] lord it over [the people], and their great ones are tyrants…” Next in this tier of tyranny came the knights, then, in the provinces and each of the thousands of cities controlled by Rome, the local aristocracy, from which was chosen governing councils; then came the ordinary Roman citizens; then the Roman subjects in occupied lands – such as the people of Palestine – and among these subjects, fishermen and farmers, vineyard keepers and artisans and shepherds; then the poor who may well be servants, perhaps indentured, then slaves, who were owned.[ii] No one would choose to be a slave. No one, except someone who feared a greater vulnerability, greater oppression were he not a slave. In this whole pyramid of power, I’m just talking about men. Women were chattel; children were unseen.
Jesus could not have used a more strident metaphor for how we are to know him, follow him, serve him than calling us to be a servant, for us to become a slave. That would be a real attention getter. What’s so amazing is that a good many of his followers were in actuality slaves; others were servants; and the membership rolls of his followers wended its way through the plebian and patrician classes, then as now. St. Paul is an example of the latter: he, an educated Roman citizen, fluent in Greek, advocating becoming a slave. St. Paul writes that just as Jesus took upon himself “the form of a slave,” so would he, so should we.[iii] “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.[iv]
The specific context in which Jesus is speaking here in our lesson from the Gospel according to Mark is to leaders. He actually recognizes power differentials in life: certain people by their age, or knowledge, or vocation or some other designation will be designated in leadership roles. But that pertains to all of us. All of us, as we navigate our way through the day, through life, are in contact with people who are serving us. Whether they’re working behind the counter at CVS, or serving us coffee, or picking up our garbage, or giving us a flu shot, they are serving us, even if only for a moment. In that moment, we are the ruler. What Jesus is speaking to here – and it will apply to all of us – is that underneath the role in which a person may be serving us, there is a child of God, one created in the very image of God. There’s no denying that they may be our servants in that moment; however it’s incumbent upon us to bequeath them with dignity, the same dignity accorded to us.
Jesus neither denies nor denigrates the exercise of power amidst human relationships, and all of us here have power. Someone else always has more power, but all of us have power, even if only for a fleeting moment. Jesus here is separating power from privilege. I appeal here again to St. Paul, the Roman citizen, who writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.[v]
In the exercise of power, Jesus is speaking both about a posture and a practice: a posture of humility. The word humility comes from the Latin, humus, which means “earth, the ground.” Humility is to be grounded in the reality that we are all so very much the same, all of us, everyone, everywhere, children of God. The posture of servanthood is about identification, our own identification with others. Jesus here is speaking of a posture of humility and a practice of dignity. The word dignity comes from the Latin, dignus “worth,” or “worthy.” How we navigate our way through our day, through our life, claims our own dignity and must bequeath dignity, bequeath worth on others, whom Christ is dying to love.
One last word. In the calendar of the church we remember today a child named Gregory, born in Rome year 540 into a Christian family. He would serve as chief magistrate of Rome and Ambassador to Constantinople; however his passion was to be a monk. He founded seven monasteries in Italy only to be elected Bishop of Rome at age 50, much beloved, revered as a holy man. Gregory faced enormous challenges. He became Bishop of Rome a little more than a century after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Rome was under siege by one conqueror after another. Famine and plague were rampant, and it was also a time of corruption, schism, despair, within both church and in society. Somehow he prevailed, beaming Jesus’ light and life and love in the most desperate of needs, enabling by his leadership the liberation of hope and help to a Europe which was in abject despair. He came to be called Gregory the Great. Others called him “Great.” In his own eyes, he saw himself as the servant of the servants of God. We remember him as a living icon, of someone who showed how it is possible to lead as a servant – a witness we need today as much as then – and we remember him to covet his prayers on our behalf. Blessed Gregory, Great St. Gregory, whom we remember today.
[i] The Oxford Guide to People & Places of the Bible, by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan; loc. 5771-5773.
[ii] Ibid; loc. 5232-50.
[iii] Philippians 2:3-8.
[iv] Galatians 3:28.
[v] Philippians 2:3-8. Also note Colossians 3:11: “11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
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