October 21, 2018 - Be Humble or God Won't Love You
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?" They answered him, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
This overarching theme of this blog is that God is unconditionally loving; in other words, He will love us regardless of what we do or don’t do. This sounds like the ordinary Christian position, but it is more uncompromising: God requires nothing – no behavior, no contrition, and no belief – in order to love us. The result is universal salvation and it is almost universally rejected. God knows we don’t like universal salvation and so innumerable stories and parables criticize us - those who demand that God judge and condemn. Remember the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story? Remember Jonah and the Ninevites? Remember the lost sheep and the lost coin? Remember the vineyard workers who started work earliest? Remember the multiplication of the loaves? All these stories speak of a God whose love is so abundant that it can feed everyone with more leftover, and the people who don’t like that. Yet we always read these stories as requiring something from us: usually altruism.
In this case we read the story to mean that God requires humility. And certainly this Sunday’s Gospel and last Sunday’s Gospel can be read as instructions to clergy to live an ascetic, simple life and not to organize themselves into hierarchies. They can also be read as instructions to the laity to give generously to charity (although the story seems to call for something more extreme) and to be humble. And maybe Jesus became incarnate to encourage these traits in us – but it makes Jesus seem a little prosaic. More importantly, that view requires that God is not unconditionally loving; He imposes conditions. It is an inviting interpretation because it allows us to tsk tsk at unpleasant arrogant people, or to critique the Church. And that’s easy and fun.
What is the true meaning?
It is hidden in plain sight. Two millennia after the life of Jesus we have become numb to the extraordinary message of the Gospel. God became incarnate! Whether this is true in every respect or true just in the most important ways, this is an extraordinary thing. And He didn’t become incarnate to establish dominion over humanity. Scholars say the Jewish innovation was monotheism. I believe the Jewish innovation was divine regard and love for humanity. Before Abraham’s encounter with God in which God tells Abraham he must not sacrifice his son, the divine was either wholly disinterested in human affairs, or imposed a transactional relationship: you do this for me, and I’ll send rain, or fertility, or let the sun come up again. Today, we hear something extraordinarily different:
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Think about that. Or think about how good it is to be humble.