To Serve, Not to be Served

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark has James and John trying to secure their place at the head of the class. They approach Jesus and ask to be seated at his right and his left when Jesus comes into his glory. (I confess that James and John in this passage remind me of my siblings and I arguing in our childhood about who would get to sit in the front of the car on those rare occasions when only one parent was on the trip, leaving the other front seat open.)

The other apostles are indignant when they learn of the James and John’s power play (although I’m guessing at least some part of that indignant response has to do with the fact that they didn’t think to ask the question of Jesus themselves). And it is easy for us to make fun of James and John as well, since their blatent push for a front seat seems so embarassing.

Nonetheless, while we may not be as pushy as James and John, we are as much in need of Jesus’ response to them as they were. It is easy to think following Jesus means having a place at the head of the line. Getting to be one of the people in charge. But Jesus makes clear that those who follow him are not like “those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles, who lord it over them, and…make their authority over them felt.” Instead, explains Jesus, “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 give his life as a ransom for many.”

As he does on so many other occasions, Jesus turns our normal expectations on their head. The objective, in Jesus’ eyes, is not to be served, but to serve. And Jesus models that for us in so many ways. If we look at incidents like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we come to understand that greatness in God’s sight is not found in how many people serve us, but rather in how faithfully we serves others.

I attended Sunday Mass yesterday, at the end of the Vincentian Chair for Social Justice Poverty Conference at St. John’s University. The homily added a dimension to this reading that was not present for me before. Pat Griffin, C.M., who was presiding, talked about how Mark’s Gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry with the scene involving the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, a reading that has always rubbed me (and many women, I suspect) the wrong way. Peter’s mother-in-law is ill, Jesus heals her and she immediately gets up and waits on the guys, is how that reading has always played for me. But I heard it today without the male/female element as Pat described the response of someone being touched by Jesus being one of service…of serving others. Being touched by Jesus means being drawn into an attitude of serving, rather than being served. That theme of serving others is emphasized by Mark thoughout Jesus’ public ministry, as it is powerfully in today’s Gospel.