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Serving Goes Both Ways

So, I’ve read Mark 10:35-45 dozens of times in the course of my career, and I’ve always understood that the disciples didn’t quite get the import of all the Jesus was saying in this passage. But it just hit me this week that they weren’t just a little off from Jesus, they were on a completely different page!

In the passage right before this, Jesus and the disciples are all on their way to Jerusalem and Jesus is once again talking about his suffering, death and resurrection. The disciples seem to be a little thick-headed here, or they’re in denial or something. They still see him as the Messiah who will bring a new reign of earthly glory to Israel. What James and John are asking for, when asking to sit at his right and left hand, is to have places of honor next to Jesus the King while they are toasting their victory.

Jesus responds by telling them that they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Can they drink the cup that he will drink and be baptized with the same baptism? In other words, can they maintain the course even though it will mean their own suffering and death? James and John respond that they can. And Jesus, seeming to foreshadow their suffering and death, tells them that they will. However, we need to remember that when this was written in about the year 70 CE, James had already been martyred (Acts 12:2) as had Peter and Paul and likely a few others, though the stories are mostly legends. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that all would come to some kind of violent death if they continued to preach the gospel.

Anyway, Jesus tells James and John that it isn’t up to him who sits next to him, and alludes that the job of assigning seats (presumeably in heaven) belongs to God. At which point all the disciples jump into the fray. But Jesus pulls them together and uses this as a teaching moment. He reminds them of all the arrogant, domineering people they know who are in power, the ones who make sure you know that they are in charge and you aren’t. Well, Jesus says, you can’t be like that. This spiritual walk is different. If you want to be “great” you must serve the rest.

Well, shoot, that’s not what they signed on for. The ethos of the ancient world didn’t have a spot for a servant who was great. Being a servant meant you had no power, you were at the mercy of someone richer and more powerful than you, maybe you were even a slave. And, Jesus said, you must serve the “needs of all”! Why would Jesus ask that? What’s so awesome about being a servant that it makes you great in a spiritual sense? Let’s talk about this because I don’t think the cultural mindset toward servants has actually changed much.

First of all, let's talk about the characteristics of true service. Authentic service is done without expecting anything in return - no accolades, gratitude or recognition. We don't do it for ourselves, or because we have to. There is no ego and no judgement involved, but true service is done with joy, with compassion, with grace and with graitude, and it happens between equals. True service is born out of our common humanity and an understanding that we're all in this together.

For Jesus it was an event of grace and love between equals. One is not so much greater than another that they don’t need to be concerned about another and their needs.

 We sang “The Servant Song” in church yesterday, and this stanza stands out for me:

Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

A lay missioner with Maryknoll, Angel Mortel, shared that she and her husband used "The Servant Song" in their wedding ceremony in the hopes that it would set the tone for a life-long commitment to giving themselves fully to each other and being open to receiving graciously from each other. She wrote, “True relationship and connection happen when the service goes both ways. Everyone has something to offer.”

Then she tells the story of a woman named Maria, when she met when she was a missioner in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Maria had seven children and was raising them alone because her husband was in jail.

They seemed to live a fairly isolated existence in the community and when Angel inquired about it she was told that it was because Maria’s husband was a notorious drug trafficker and many people feared him, so they stayed away.

Maria worked as a housekeeper in downtown Sao Paulo, a two-hour bus ride from where she lived. Her kids ranged in age from two to twelve. She couldn’t afford child care for the younger kids, so she locked them up in the house alone and left the older ones in charge.

One morning when the older kids were at school, the four younger kids were locked n the house alone. Maria had instructed the older kids to take the house key with them because she didn’t want the younger ones out in the street. The seven-year-old, Roberto, wanted to make coffee for breakfast. He boiled a pot of water, and when he poured the water the pot broke and the scalding hot water fell on the leg of his five-year-old sister, Mariana. She went into shock and Roberto had to get help, but he couldn’t get out. So he ran to the backyard, struggled over a wall and fell into his neighbor’s yard. She wasn’t home so he squeezed through the bars on her front gate and was able to get someone to call for emergency help. Mariana spent two months in the hospital.

The story spread quickly and the community was very moved. They could relate to Maria’s struggles of raising kids alone, to her frustration with not finding work close to home, and to her fear of the street violence. After the accident, Maria quit her job so she didn’t have to leave her kids at home alone, but this made her struggle to make ends meet very difficult. Her daughter desperately needed follow-up care, but Maria couldn’t always get her there. She also needed a special sock on her leg to hold the skin in place as it healed, but Maria just couldn’t manage to save enough money for the sock. Eventually the small faith community of Santo Eugenio raised the money to help buy the sock. Despite the fact that many people in the community were very poor, they did what they could and $300 was collected, mostly in coins.

Maria was overwhelmed by the parish’s generosity. Several members of the community started to help her with childcare and food. She wanted to give back in some way and asked how. The parish leaders told her that they were there to serve her and that she didn’t need to do anything or give anything in return. One of the leaders commented on the side, “What could she give us anyway? She can’t read and she doesn’t have any time with all those kids.”

Regardless, Maria found several small ways to serve. She washed the altar cloths every week; she swept the church after Mass; she started going to Mass; she sent her kids to catechism classes; she sent her older kids to help with church events. Slowly, Maria became an integral part of the faith community and the relationship of mutual giving and receiving continued.

There was a clear disparity of power when the church leaders said, we’ll just serve you because what could you possibly have to offer us. That is full of ego and arrogance and short-sightedness. When we do not allow service to be a two-way street, we set up a power dynamic where it is ok for usto help others, but we're too good to need anyone else. It makes it sound negative to need help, or accept help, which you reflect onto the person you just helped!

I want to be clear that serving goes both ways in all relationships. We don't just serve the poor and needy, we serve our partners, parent, children, friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers in the grocery store.  The question we each need to answer is how willing are we to offer true service and to whom? And, are we willing to let others serve us? It's something to think about.

Love & Light!