Sunday 17 October 2021
Trinity 20, Twenty-ninth in Ordinary time, Proper 24
This is not the way it is among you
Context: non-Eucharistic service in a suburban chapel with a congregation of 15 to 20 adults
Aim: to contrast ‘the way of the world’ with the way of God’s Kingdom
Lord Alton of Liverpool is probably better known in his previous incarnation, as David Alton MP. In 1997 he received a life peerage in John Major’s dissolution honours list, switched from the House of Commons to the Lords, and turned from a Liberal Democrat into an independent. I recently read the transcript of an interview conducted by Roy McCloughry, Director of the Kingdom Trust. McCloughry quizzed Alton about his faith and politics. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the politics bit that I want to quote today because, unwittingly I’m sure, Alton paraphrased something Jesus says in today’s Gospel. In fact, he effectively provided a contemporary application of Jesus’ words.
He was speaking about how many people enter the world of politics for genuinely altruistic reasons. For example, large numbers of trained lawyers go into politics, and they hardly do it for the money, do they? But as they progress in their new career, something snaps; they start betraying their former principles. Someone who used to march for CND, plans a pre-emptive strike on a nation that’s never threatened us; someone who previously protested against Augusto Pinochet becomes his saviour; someone who used to champion public transport, decides he needs a fleet of Jags for himself alone.
And so, to the quote. Alton said, ‘People tell me that if they can only climb one more rung on the ladder or strike one more deal, they’ll be in a position to make some change.’ And when they’ve climbed that one rung? ‘The only change I notice is the one that occurs in them.’ I was reminded of Mark 10:42, which in Eugene Peterson’s translation ‘The Message’ is rendered thus: ‘When people get a little power it quickly goes to their heads.’ It’s the same point, isn’t it?
But Jesus then adds, ‘This is not the way it is among you.’ Yes, this is the way of the world. Always has been, always will be. But in God’s topsy-turvy, upside-down, Kingdom, it’s not the way. There’s another way of exercising leadership, another way of having influence, another way of working to change people’s lives for the better.
The context, as always, is important. James and John have just asked for the best seats in the Kingdom. This may not make much sense to modern hearers, living in a global village. Physical proximity to a ‘power source’ isn’t so important in a world where church services take place via Zoom and where in your working life your immediate boss may be on a different continent from you; indeed, you may have never met. But in New Testament days physical closeness was everything. The most important guests at a feast sat next to the host; the most honoured people in a court sat next to the ruler. In particular, in a royal court, you wanted to be immediately right or left of the throne.
James’ and John’s request, if granted, would give them precedence not only over anyone else in the Kingdom, but also over the other ten apostles. Which explains why they become angry. Jesus takes the opportunity to turn James and John, with their self-importance and self-interest, into negative role models. ‘This is not the way it is among you.’
So, where’s the positive role model? Well, it’s in the next passage, starting at verse 46. Blind Bartimaeus calls out from the kerbside, ‘Jesus! Son of David! Take pity on me!’ I’m sure Saint Mark placed these stories side by side hoping we’d spot the contrasting ways of coming to Jesus. James’ and John’s approach, ‘There is something we want you to do for us,’ Bartimaeus’ approach, ‘Jesus! Son of David! Take pity on me!’
We realise today’s lesson isn’t just about leadership, which would make it relevant only to those who aspire to lead in the first place, but about Christian discipleship in general. Because we all need to approach Christ, day by day, don’t we? And this is a question I must ask myself. In what spirit do I usually come to Jesus? Is it ‘there is something I want you to do for me’, or is it ‘Lord have mercy?’ How do you approach Christ – as seekers after a favour or as sinners pleading for pity?
The people of this world are in the business of dealing out blame, of demanding rights, of pleading for special privileges, of boasting in status, of lording it over one another. But Jesus says, ‘This is not the way it is among you.’
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