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Servant of All? The Politics of Mark 10:35-45

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[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to david.true@wilson.edu.]

The question, “Who is the greatest?” haunts this week’s lectionary. In Job, God demands of Job to answer questions that only God Almighty can answer. “Do not question God: God has all power and authority,” seems to be the appropriate lesson to be gained. The reading from Hebrews speaks of an earthly authority figure, the high priest. This is someone chosen by God, having a humble attitude, and making sacrifices for their sins as well as the people’s. The same God who sets the world on its foundation chooses these great men. These first two readings are theologically abstract, rather than being in narrative form. They show that God has all the power, God is the only One who knows all the answers and does what is most right for the world.

The gospel lesson provides an interesting critique of the other lessons. Jesus’ disciples James and John are fighting among themselves as to who will be the greatest in the kingdom, the one who is sits at Jesus’ right and left hand. At this point in the narrative, the disciples most likely still thought Jesus was a Messiah who would take over Rome by force and set up his own kingdom. They want to know who will sit next to Jesus in this earthly kingdom, gaining all the wealth, power, and privilege. During their interrogation of Jesus, James and John argue that they are able to drink from the same cup of struggle and baptism as him.

Jesus responds, levelling the discussion:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44 NRSV).

How appropriate in the heat of a presidential election season.

Are we not the Gentiles who have leaders ruling over us? Are we not the ones who obey the rules that are placed upon us? Isn’t it true that we have tyrants that are more concerned the upper class and middle class than with those struggling to get by, living paycheck to paycheck? Jesus demands a non-leadership leadership from his disciples. Something more topsy-turvy than the world’s standards that resemble social Darwinism. Jesus exclaims that those who are heteronomous, otherly-minded, will be the ones who are the greatest. Something can be said about people who are servants to all; they lose themselves in the process. They are living for others rather than looking to dominate and control, stepping on the lives of others to gain more power.

Jesus explicitly wants his disciples to be servants, as he is a servant too. Therefore, how do we deal with the verses from Job and the letter to the Hebrews running counter to Jesus’ message. John Caputo quotes theologian Catherine Keller’s position on the subject:

“‘The Whirlwind is a windbag,’ a false god and a parody of a God of justice and love, and Job’s sudden, complete, and uncalled-for capitulation at the end is almost humorous.”*

Keller’s observation seems astute. Thus, this text must be placed into the camp of a God Almighty, not of a God of Compassion. The hermeneutical challenge, of course, creates a tension for this reading. Reading through the rest of the book, God gives Job back double what he originally had acquired, and thus demonstrates a God of love and compassion.

God is not the only one whose character is hidden or in question. In current political news, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan visited a soup kitchen for a photo-op. He wanted to show that charity work is important and should be depended on more than the government, since his own budget plans do not give much concern for those who are struggling. Yet, even the non-profit Bread for the World posted about the importance of the government for the needs of the people rather than only depending on charities for all the aid. Paul Ryan’s stint intended to show that he was a servant of all; instead, it displayed Ryan’s true colors, a fear of the other. Instead of looking into the eyes of those who are affected by governmental policies, he focuses on the needs of groups that benefit his political standing. Our politicians are shrewder than the disciples — too shrewd for their own good and ours. We too must be shrewd — participating where we can but never confusing them with the Servant of all.

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Timothy Wotring is a graduate of Eastern University in Saint David’s, PA. He lives in West Philadelphia and is a member of the Episcopal Church. He blogs at blackflagtheology.com and is interested in political, liberation, feminist, and postcolonial theologies.

*Caputo, John The Weakness of God: The Theology of the Event, Indiana University Press, 2006, pg. 78.
**Tucker, Robert, The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition, Norton & Company, 1978, pg. 141.

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Timothy Wotring is a graduate of Eastern University in Saint David’s, PA. He lives in West Philadelphia and is a member of the Episcopal Church. He keeps a blog (blackflagtheology.com) and is interested in political, liberation, feminist, and postcolonial theologies.