Proper 20

September 24, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Proverbs 31:10-31
Reading 2: 
Psalm 1
Reading 3: 
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Reading 4: 
Mark 9:30-37
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 54
Alt Reading 1: 
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20
By Rick Marshall

Last Sunday we read of Jesus’ effort, not altogether successful, to shift the image of what was to be hoped for from triumphant revolutionary to suffering servant. Today’s passage continues this theme, now with emphasis on the disciples. These are depicted as slow learners, still measuring success and greatness in the conventional way. Jesus’ message to them is straightforward. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." That is, if we are going to compete for status, it can only be by seeing who can serve the others best.

This idea of the greatness of service has permeated our Christian, and even post-Christian, culture and distinguishes it from most others. Those whom we choose to rule us we call public servants. Our presidents affirm their intention to serve us. Of course, we know that often this is hypocritical, that our rulers are in fact exploiting their position for their private benefit. But the assumption is that when they do so they are betraying a sacred trust. We can be grateful for this feature of Christian culture.

There is some risk that the secularization of our society is eroding this notion of the importance of service. It is my impression that concern to find a way to serve others plays a smaller role in the decisions of young people about their work today than when I was a student. To the really secular mind, the important consideration is what will be most satisfying and most profitable. In our culture the latter consideration seems often to override all others. If one is successful and behaves responsibly in society, nothing more is expected. One will quite properly vote for those programs that will support and enhance one’s success. The notion of service plays no role.

This loss of the impact of Jesus’ teaching may have been speeded up by the recognition of its abuse. The teaching has been used by masters to persuade slaves to accept their condition and by men to keep women servile. Quite obviously, any master reading his Bible seriously would apply the teaching to himself rather than to his slaves. It would command him to be servant to his slaves. Perhaps there were times when Jesus’ message eased the savagery of the slavery system in individual cases, but we may be glad that in the end it inspired many to turn against slavery in general and to overthrow the system.

The relation of the personal and the systemic is relevant to the next point. Here as elsewhere, Jesus lifts up children. To welcome a child is to welcome him. For many of us on a purely personal level, this is an easy and even joyous message. We love our children and grandchildren and gladly extend our welcome to the children of our friends.

But there are still problems even here. Although we love our children, we learn that in many ways we abuse them. With some parents this is obvious to all. They love their children only as extensions of themselves. Or they excuse the harshness of their treatment of the children by claiming that it is a healthy discipline. When Jesus calls on us to welcome children, he seems to mean that we should take them seriously as human beings and love them unconditionally, however trying their behavior. They are not our possessions or instruments. We still have much to learn about what this means.

At the systemic level the problem is still worse. Our society collectively abuses its children to an appalling extent. One out of four children grows up in poverty. In itself that does not say much. There our poor parents who give to their children a wise love that rich parents often deny. But poverty is a great handicap to parents who want to provide for their children. It can degenerate into homelessness. It sometimes means there is not enough to eat. Poor parents can be terribly frustrated and angry about their condition, and they can take out their feelings on their children. Being pressured to work, single mothers may have to leave their children in the care of strangers who are not always well trained or truly caring. Such children are likely to seek in gangs the acceptance and status they have not found elsewhere. Many end up in prison.

Christians cannot in good conscience accept this situation. For some Christians this is a call to personal charity and involvement with poor neighbors. That is admirable indeed. For others it can mean only trying to change the systemic situation. To do so, they may support a program within the church or join an organization dedicated to helping children. They may study the situation and explain it to others. They may examine the platforms of political parties to see who takes the problem more seriously and has better ideas about dealing with it.

There are so many problems about which we are concerned as Christians, that any one of them must find its place in our lives accordingly. We can only do so much. But it is often the case that programs that would ease one problem would ease others as well. As we study the causes of the poverty of children, we find of, course, that they are the causes of poverty in general. We also find that poverty is not an inevitable condition in the nature of things but results in large part from governmental policies.

Let me illustrate. We have heard a lot of rhetoric recently about how most of the people who have been on welfare should be forced to work. There is much that is good about this. Most people develop more self-esteem by working. Whether mothers of young children should be pressured to leave their children is another question, but that is not my present point. That point is that most people do not realize that it is also government policy to maintain a high level of unemployment! We pressure everyone to work, but we do so in a context in which we make sure that many of them cannot gain employment.

This policy is administered by the Federal Reserve Board. It is based on an unproven doctrine that low unemployment leads to high rates of inflation. The Federal Reserve is run by bankers whose interest it is to avoid inflation at all costs. Hence, when unemployment declines, they raise interest rates to prevent "wage-inflation." The intended effect is to "cool" the economy so that there will be fewer jobs and more unemployment.

Because this seems like technical economics, the church has been largely silent. But right now is a good time to protest. Recently, unemployment went much lower than economic doctrine thought it should with no adverse effects on the inflation front. Any inflation in the system now is due to oil prices and, perhaps, to the high interest rates already instituted by the Federal Reserve. Economists are shaken in their opposition to full employment policies. Those who have insisted so loudly that welfare recipients should go to work may be honest in wanting them to be able to do so. The time is ripe for the church to insist on fundamental rethinking of federal employment policy. If we care about children, it is time to speak up.

This time there is an obvious connection between the Mark passage and the one in James. James summarizes much of his passage when he concludes: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you." This certainly resembles the idea that the first shall be last and the last, first.

Nevertheless, there is a difference. James does not tell us to humble ourselves before one another. He is certainly emphatic that we should not engage in conflicts and disputes with one another. In our relations with others we will be "peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." This is a lofty goal. But the tendency is to emphasize that what is wrong with us when we relate badly to our neighbors is our distorted relation to God. It seems that if we humbly submit to God our relations with one another will take care of themselves.

Mark is telling us that if we serve others instead of trying to get power over them we will be rightly related to God. James is telling us that if we relate rightly to God our relations with our neighbors will be rightly ordered. In the history of Christian reflection, these two themes have sometimes been in tension. Need they be?

One of the contributions of process theology may be to harmonize these apparently disparate emphases. For process theology every decision is at once about our relations to others and about our response to God’s call. To conform to God’s call is to relate rightly to others. To relate to others rightly is to respond fully go God’s call.

It remains true, however, that James does not introduce the theme of service. This may be another instance of his staying closer to the practical. He may think he has some reasonable chance of shaming the squabblers into more civil relations with one another! Perhaps he can help create a more cooperative spirit in the congregation. But to persuade the contending parties really to humble themselves before one another in deeds of mutual service may be going too far! Indeed, most of us would judge so in a similar situation in our churches.


Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.