February 25 | Second Encounter: Servanthood and Sight





Second Encounter: Servanthood and Sight
Text: Mark 10:32-52
Speaker: Joel Miller

Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem.  At this point, he’s walking ahead of the others.  Mark writes: “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”  Amazed, perhaps, because Jesus had just told a wealthy man that in order to follow him he had to sell everything, and redistribute his wealth to the poor.  Afraid, perhaps, because Jesus keeps telling them – now for the third time – that once they arrive in Jerusalem, the Human One will be handed over to the authorities and killed…and after three days rise again. 

Jesus was walking ahead of them, but James and John break away from the group and come forward to Jesus with a request about being Jesus’ right and left hand men – places of honor, power, and succession, perhaps. 

With the other 10/12ths of the disciples now listening, quite upset at James and John, Jesus says this: “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles (Romans) show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45 for the Human One[e] didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”   

You may have heard that last line in other translations as “give his life as a ransom for many,” which has led to some lousy theology about God requiring Jesus to suffer death or be punished so we don’t have to go to hell if we don’t believe the right things.  This translation does a better job of getting to what Jesus is talking about.  He’s talking about liberation.  Liberation for many people – including the disciples, who are stuck in the deep ruts of how power is usually exercised.  Including, unfortunately, us. 

This is a story about liberation from that stuckness, liberation from spiritual blindness.  It has everything to do with these encounters with servanthood, and sight.

The idea of leadership as service reaches back well before the gospels.  Five hundred years before Christ, in China, Lao Tzu wrote this in the Tao Te Ching:

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’[source]

If we can jet from 5th century BCE China to 20th century corporate American without getting whiplash, the phrase “servant leadership” was made popular in the US by Robert Greenleaf.  His writing became something of a movement that impacted how corporations and governments talked and thought about leadership. 

Greenleaf worked for AT&T for forty years.  Over those decades he became weary of the authoritarian type of power he experienced in US institutions.  So he took an early retirement in 1964.  He committed himself to researching and writing about leadership ethics.  From this he wrote a highly influential essay called “Essentials in Servant Leadership.” It included these words: 

“The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”  Citation HERE.

If you’ve ever had a boss or supervisor or mentor or parent who has been this kind of servant leader, you know what a gift it is.
Robert Greenleaf’s mention of the least privileged highlights the potential subversiveness of prioritizing service rather than, say, the bottom line, or holding power for its own sake. 

There’s a great scene in the movie “Gandhi” where Gandhi is meeting with other Indian leaders.  His nonviolent campaign had caught the attention of the British, still occupying India.  They have just passed legislation to imprison any Indian with possession of materials considered seditious, with Gandhi’s writings at the top of the list.  In this scene, Gandhi is meeting with Hindu and Muslim Indian leaders in an upscale house, six of them total, discussing how to respond.  The conversation centers on whether to respond violently or more passively, until Gandhi speaks up and says he has never advocated for passive anything.  He gets up from his seat and says he’s with those who believe they should never submit to unjust laws.  “Our resistance must be active and provocative,” he says. 

He then approaches a seventh person in the room, an Indian servant standing at attention, ready to serve tea.  Gandhi takes the tray from him, and says to the others, “I want to embarrass all those who wish to treat us as slaves….all of them.”  He proceeds to serve tea around the room as he proposes a national day of prayer and fasting, which would not-coincidentally shut down the economy and administration of the entire country.  A larger point being that liberation from an empire is incomplete if we ourselves aren’t liberated from lessening the humanity of others. 

This seems to be the kind of all-encompassing subversive conversion Jesus is calling for – had been calling for.  The teachings, the healings, the casting out of harmful spirits, the parables, the crossing over to the other side of the sea, and back again, the feeding of the thousands in the wilderness, telling the wealthy man that he should redistribute his wealth to the poor, the heading toward Jerusalem – all this for the purpose of liberation.  Liberation for the least privileged, and folks with plenty of privilege.  Liberation from the kind of power Rome exercised, which shows up in all levels of human relationships, even those closest to us.  

Despite all this, so close to the end now, the disciples still can’t see it.  They don’t see, or hear, or understand, which are all used interchangeably throughout Mark.  This is made painfully clear in this exchange with James and John and the other ten.  Rather than blame them, we would do well to identify with them in our still not-quite-getting-it.

So if the Human One came not to be served, but to serve, and to give their life as liberation for many, what does liberation look like?  We have plenty examples of what it doesn’t look like, then and now.  But what does it look like?  

Well, there’s one more story before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, and it’s pretty simple.  They arrive in Jericho, the last town outside Jerusalem, and on their way out they encounter a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who asks for mercy, throws off his cloak as he rushes to Jesus, says he wants to see again, regains his sight, and follows Jesus on the way. 

I’m intrigued just as much with what Mark doesn’t say about Bartimeaus.  We don’t know who this person is.  We don’t know how he heard of Jesus.  We don’t get any details of what the healing was like, except that “he regained his sight,” and we have no idea what happens to him once he follows Jesus “on the way.”

We do know that he was blind.  And we know that he knew he was blind.  And this is what sets him apart from the other disciples.  He knows he can’t see, so rather than request power from Jesus, he requests sight.  And that’s what liberation looks like.  Someone who knows they can’t see, and in that very knowing and calling out for mercy, regains their sight.    

We have to careful here.  Physical blindness is not a spiritual deficiency.  On the contrary, often those with a disability are able to perceive things others can’t, like Bartimaeus.  In Mark, sight serves as a metaphor for understanding the gospel of liberation – something the 12 disciples do not yet have, but Bartimaeus does.  Discipleship is “A way of seeing” as Chris W. talked about two weeks ago.   

We can carry this all the way through the end of Mark with some better theology around the crucifixion of Jesus.  For those of us still entranced with Roman style of power, Jesus’ violent death is a great unveiling.  To confess Jesus as human and divine and to witness his crucifixion is to see how the power of domination is ultimately an assault on humanity and divinity.  To experience the resurrection is to see there is a power even deeper than this, which rises up from death and offers life to all.      

That’s the cosmic vision Mark has in mind.  That’s where we’re headed on this road.  Resurrection is the ultimate encounter. 

But I want to end with something on a smaller scale – the scale of our daily lives, and what it might mean for us to live a life of service – to see with the eyes of the heart a bit more clearly.  I’ll take another cue from Chris’s sermon and end with a poem.  This one was sent to me this week by CMCer Susan A..
It includes the imagery of cupped hands, so as you listen, I invite you to cup your hands in front of, and receive these words:

by Martha Postlethwaite

Do not try to serve
the whole world
or do anything grandiose. Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is yours alone to sing
falls into your open cupped hands and you recognize and greet it. Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to the world
so worthy of rescue.