In Mark’s little vignette we have a lovely example of human ego and ambition and hunger for power on the part of two of the disciples, an example which it turns out was too embarrassing for Matthew when he came to write his gospel.
Matthew (20:20) took this story and deftly changed it so that it was their mother who asked for positions of power on her sons’ behalf trying to turn the story into one of maternal pride rather than naked ambition on the part of two of the disciples.
That is interesting because as well as having a story about human frailty, within the pages of the Bible itself you have another very human example of the group closing ranks and trying to cover up their faults to present a more acceptable public image.
The most spectacular modern example of this has been the child abuse that priests have been guilty of in catholic church in Ireland, where power had corrupted the institution and provided a safe haven for abusers. (They are not the only ones of course and the C of E is certainly not untainted, but Irish Catholicism is the most notable example).The response of the church in Ireland, when all the evidence came flooding out was the same as Matthew’s. Cover up, deny, present a united front, draw the wagons into a circle and defend ourselves.
The rest is history. Catholicism in Ireland is now on a life support machine – almost completely discredited. The seminaries are nearly all closed and the churches have emptied at an enormous rate. Being open and honest and apologising completely and facing up to the problem squarely would not have taken away the pain of the victims, but would have shown that the institutional church had a humane and spiritual heart and may be worth saving. Instead, all that was revealed was an empty heartless institution, just trying to defend itself at all costs.
On a different subject, mid week I wrote that “Transformation begins with acceptance”. Acceptance of our frailties, accepting that we also have very selfish motivations as well as our more altruistic ones. If we are able to take a long hard look at ourselves and know and accept where we fall short of the ideal – Loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves - that is the beginning of transformation, for with acceptance we will need to also practice forgiveness.
You will of course realise that we have this mechanism built in to every service. We call it the confession. We all skip over it without paying it much mind mostly, but that is why it is there. We are then assured of God’s forgiveness. What most of us need is help to forgive ourselves. And even more help to forgive others – something I find very difficult indeed, but honesty – accepting that I find forgiveness difficult - is the best policy.
When I took my dog Toby down to the river yesterday morning and my favourite place was littered with bags, broken glass and beer cans, I certainly didn’t want to forgive those who did it – still less when I learned that they had also been deliberately smashing bottles in the cemetery as well.
First came anger. Then, eventually, came acceptance. It is horrible but It has happened and there is nothing you can do to make it not so. It is the same for little things like that as it is for much bigger things like illness, unemployment or death. It is how we react. Do we shrivel and die insideor do we grow? Well, perversely in Christian thought – both! The Christian message is that actually something has to die before something can grow.
Jesus encapsulates all this in his assessment of the situation that those who want to be great must first become servants.
What does this mean? It can only mean that salvation lies in going beyond our egos and natural selfish ambition to find commonality. What has to die first is our self-centred view of the world. That must die in order that a different understanding of our neighbour can grow. To see someone else not as someone to be exploited but a brother or sister to be helped, or to cooperate with, means a perceptual shift in the way we relate to humanity and the world around us.
Our normal loyalties start with ourself, then to our spouse and children, then on to a wide range of allegiances which might include nationality, class, religion, culture, friends. Now a measure of this is I think necessary in order to live, but the Jesus way is to subordinate these natural affinities and loyalties. The Jesus way is that they be transcended by a larger holistic view of the world.
Normally our loyalties and partialities are a series of concentric circles emanating out from US standing at the centre. It takes quite a shift in outlook to see the divine mystery at the centre and see all people and all the world as included in God’s huge circle of inclusion.
Who is my neighbour? One of Jesus’ most famous parables, the good Samaritan, was a commentary on that very question. We are all neighbours, one of another, and we should therefore love our neighbour as ourselves.
To truly be a servant leader needs that change in emphasis in our hearts – to change the locus of the centre of being from ourselves to knowing the true centre of being which is God.
That too involves acceptance. Acceptance that is the way the world truly is. We call this “faith” or “trust” and in acceptance of that fact will follow transformation. And transformation is a path, a journey on which we are all at different points and sometimes it feels as if we haven’t made much progress at all. Like when kids descrate one of your favourite spots. By God it is difficult to forgive – but knowing the process and practicing it is where we need to be in order to become healthy human beings having fullness of life. Accept, forgive, transform.