Unsuffering Servants

Sunday 18th October 2009
Year B, The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Isaiah 53:4-12
Mark 10:35-45

The other week, Michael talked about Mark's Gospel on St. Matthew's day. I can go one better. I am going to start by talking about Matthew with respect to Mark's Gospel on St. Luke's day. The passage we have just heard about the Sons of Zebedee seeking places of honour in the Kingdom of Heaven is much better to preach on in Matthew (Matthew 20:20) than in Mark because in Matthew it isn't the boys, James and John, the Sons of Thunder, who ask a favour of Jesus, but their mother; and that means jokes about Jewish mothers. I don't know why, but perhaps Jewish mothers are more pushy on behalf of their children than other mothers. It's lovable in them but, of course, it's deeply suspect among our own kind; you often hear negative comments about "pushy' middle-class parents trying to gain advantage for their children over less well equipped or less well motivated parents, playing the system to get their darlings into the best schools. In spite of such instances, as a people we are not notably pushy; perhaps we want the rewards without putting in the effort; perhaps that's why we aren't as fanatical about winning as the Australians and South Africans. It's no bad thing, in its way, but there is an alternative to being pushy or the one hand, and tepid on the other.

The clue is in the reading from Isaiah which is taken from a passage known as "the suffering servant", a passage which the Evangelists interpreted as a pre-figurement of the suffering of Jesus. By this I do not mean that Isaiah knew what was going to happen; he did not know that an incarnational event would take place in the person of Jesus who would suffer and die for us. Rather, the Evangelists, looking back at Isaiah, saw in his writings, and those of the other prophets, a pre-figurement of what took place. In the words of the theologian, Nicholas Lash, writing about the relationship between prophets and evangelists:

            "... we forget at our peril that the gospels are, from first to last, interpretations of the Jewish Scriptures. To read them otherwise (and it matters not whether the style of our forgetfulness is 'liberal' or 'literalist' in character) is, in effect, to clamber down from the shoulders of the prophets. But, if we do clamber down, one thing is certain, the risen Christ will disappear from view." [i]

The problem with the word "servant" is that it bears peculiar overtones in English. As I think you have heard me say before, being a waiter on the Continent is a highly respectable occupation; you know that because it is undertaken by mature, full-time males rather than by part-time female students. The situation is so bad in the Anglo Saxon countries that one-time Reader's Digest Editor, James W. Esprey, composing a collection of fake collective nouns - you know what they are; a bench of bishops, a school of whales, an unkindness of ravens, that sort of thing. Well, Esprey came up with "An indifference of waiters". As a culture we seem to be trapped between the caricature of Jeeves or the unerringly authoritarian butler in Ishiguro's The Remains of The Day, and the near slave parlour maids and scullery boys working eight hours a day, only being allowed home for Christmas and on Mothering Sunday.

What the readings challenge us to do is to compare the suffering servant in Isaiah, who pre-figures Jesus, with the ambition of the Zebedee brothers. The comparison, however, is not so simple as it may seem. Isaiah is writing a highly charged piece of poetry about the suffering of prophets but the passage in Mark is a no less highly charged account of a looming crisis. James and John, the out-riders, the Disciples who threaten violence against non-believers, have finally realised (Mark 10:32-34) that the game is up, that something terrible is going to happen in Jerusalem which might involve them all in very sudden and nasty deaths and they naturally want to make sure that all their hard work for Jesus has not been in vain. They know that Peter and his brother Andrew are ahead of them in the pecking order, so there's some catching up to be done. Jesus' reply to their request for heavenly prominence is not the flat rejection that it at first appears to be: it is for The Father, not him, to make heavenly dispositions. They do not know what they are asking? They do not know how he will suffer for his place in heaven? But neither do they know how they will suffer.

The situation for us, looking back, is much more clear as children of God our parent and sisters and brothers of Jesus, we should live like him. In a sense that is utterly recognisable, we know that this is impossible. Jesus is the only completely, truly human being and it is in the nature of our condition to be imperfect for without that shortcoming we would not be free to choose to love. We recognise that what Jesus asks us to do is impossible but that does not mean that our attempts should not be serious, sustained and prayerful. We know that we are, in our different imperfections, incapable of giving all that we have to the poor, keeping the same spouse for a lifetime, always telling the hard truth while always being gentle, always leaving ourselves vulnerable. We know this but it does not mean that the impossibility should lull us into indifference or drive us to despair. In so many aspects of our lives we want to do the best we can - in our child rearing, work, hobbies, social relationships - and what we need to do is to put our love of God and each other on the same sustained, basis. I am going to avoid current terminology, such as peer appraisal, bench marking and the replication of good practice, and just say that we need to be methodically self critical as we are over secular decisions; being a sister or brother of Christ means looking honestly at ourselves.

All this sounds a little distant from what we call service but it isn't really. Good service involves careful preparation, scrupulous execution and unflinching self-assessment; and, in the case of being a Christian, it might mean pain. In a sense, to paraphrase Dennis Healey, if it isn't hurting we probably aren't committed enough.

If James Esprey were writing now, I wonder what collective noun he would produce for our kind of Christianity:

I doubt he would look at us and think of:

This week, when we examine our conscience at the end of the day, committing ourselves to God before we go to sleep, perhaps we can use just a little of our quiet time to put a label or two to our kind of Christianity, to our kind of service.

[i] Lash, Nicholas, Theology for Pilgrims, DL&T, 2008: Sebastiano in Pallara: A Pilgrim's Tale pp167-178; quotation p176.