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The Servant of All

What does it mean to be a man of
no reputation in our reputation-obsessed world? I ask myself this
question as I consider how actually to live the alternative reality of
God’s kingdom that preachers are wont to wax eloquent about. We like
vision. Unfortunately, our record is spotty when it comes to
implementation. And one example of this is the challenge of living
God’s economy in the midst of an economic crisis.

In
Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples how God’s economy slips into
the world. His tactic has a lot to teach us about leadership,
especially in uncertain economic times.

“People
were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on
them,” Mark recounts, “but the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 10:13
TNIV). On the face of it, this seems strange. Why would the disciples
have such a strong response? People were always crowding Jesus, asking
to be blessed and healed. Why did it get under the disciples’ skin when
some normal folks brought their kids for a blessing? Isn’t this the
sort of thing that preachers and politicians are supposed to do—shake
hands and kiss babies?

Mark
offers some background in the chapter before this scene when he tells a
story about an argument that the disciples had on the road to
Capernaum. Jesus overhears the guys grumbling with one another, and he
asks what it’s about. They don’t want to tell him—they’re embarrassed
that they’ve been arguing about who was the greatest among them.
They’re stuck with the zero-sum assumption that becoming great means
making someone else small.

In
an economy of scarcity, we get used to thinking in terms of
competition. But over and against this economy’s way of thinking, Jesus
offers this tactic for abundant life: “Anyone who wants to be first
must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). If you
really want to be great, Jesus said, don’t aspire to become the
successful father of a great household. If you really want abundant
life, Jesus tells the disciples, try to become least in the household
economy. Make yourself the servant of all.

Mark
said Jesus called a child to stand beside him as he was teaching this.
“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,”
Jesus said; “and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one
who sent me” (Mark 9:37). In the ancient household economy, children
were worthless—too young and weak to be even as valuable as an adult
slave. In God’s economy, Jesus said, welcoming the lowest of servants
was the same as welcoming the Father—the pater familias. But the
disciples were having none of it. Dragging Jesus into their argument
about who is greatest, they tell the parents pressing around Jesus to
take their kids and get lost.

“When
Jesus saw this, he was indignant” (Mark 10:14). The disciples weren’t
simply shooing away some kids—they were publicly rejecting the
instruction Jesus had recently given them. Resources were limited, the
disciples thought, and Jesus’ time and energy should only be spent on
the most promising candidates.

Maybe
the disciples figured that when Jesus said, “Follow me” he was offering
them access into a higher circle—like the high school senior who
imagines a whole world of opportunity when she gets a letter saying,
“We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into Harvard
University.” Soon James and John will reveal privately their true
desires to Jesus, asking if they might have the top posts in his coming
administration (Mark 10:37). They want the access you need to become a
“great man”—the father of an abundant household. The disciples keep
thinking God’s economy works like the system of this world. They want
Jesus to help them get ahead.

But
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” his voice no doubt
still indignant, “and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God
belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive
the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark
10:14-15). Often we take this verse out of context. In our time,
children often are romantically idealized. But that is not what Mark is
pointing to. Jesus fires back in the argument about who is greatest by
saying that the kingdom will be closed to them if they don’t become
weak, despised servants, like children in the household economy.

As
repulsive as it might seem to young revolutionaries, Jesus said you
don’t overthrow the system of this world by beating the rulers at their
own game. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the
Gentiles lord it over them,” Jesus said at the conclusion of this
exchange with the disciples. “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants
to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be
first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

See Also

We
don’t establish God’s new economy by becoming a new pater familias and
running things right—freeing our slaves, sharing the work and providing
for others beyond our home. Jesus didn’t aspire to fix the system or to
overthrow it. He submitted himself to people in simple service to show
us a better way.

Jesus
offers this tactic: we usher in a new way by subversively submitting to
others in the twisted economy that is all around us. We expose the lie
of this world’s system by rejecting the greatness that it aspires to
and worships. We proclaim the goodness of our Father and his economy
when we delight to be his children — utterly dependent on God and one
another, the lowliest of servants in God’s great economy of
never-ending gift. “I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my
God,” the psalmist sings, “than live the good life in the homes of the
wicked” (Psalm 84:10 NLT). We celebrate our
abundance in God’s economy—and ridicule the false economy of this
world—by aspiring to be servants while everyone else is scrambling to
get in on the good life.

I
was reminded of this one summer in college when I volunteered to help
students into the dorms. Lugging boxes up the stairs for the 50th time,
I bumped into a middle-aged man in shorts and a dirty T-shirt. He was
breathing heavily and let out a grunt. I peered over my boxes to
apologize and saw the man’s face—it was David Black, the president of
the college I attended.

When
I wonder what it means to be a man of no reputation, the image that
comes to mind is my college president carrying boxes in a soaked
T-shirt, meeting new students as their servant before he was introduced
to them as their president. It reminds me there is no system of the
world inside which we can’t walk with Jesus in the practice of
subversive service.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of God’s Economy (Zondervan) and a contributing writer to Faith & Leadership.

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