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 History/Culture: Jesus gave greatness a different meaning

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

Are Christians destined to be rulers? Over the past 2,000 years the vast majority of the followers of Jesus have answered that question with a resounding “yes.” With that answer we have deserted the very one whom we claim to follow.

Among the aphorisms of Jesus is a simple message that his followers found troubling. “If any among you would be great, let him be a servant of all.” This saying is found in both the Matthew gospel and the Mark gospel. The saying is given story settings that are a bit different. However, in both settings a dispute has arisen among his disciples. They were vying for first place when Jesus became a powerful ruler. They were looking forward to the day when they would be top dogs in a powerful ruling kingdom.

Jesus had a different vision. The people of God were to be a servant people. Jesus pointed out to his disciples that other people aspired to greatness by exercising authority. His words were direct and plain. “It shall not be so among you!” ...

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To establish his point of view, Jesus quoted from the Isaiah writings of the Old Testament. The particular passage quoted by Jesus was written during the period of the Babylonian captivity. There is no lower point in the history of the children of Israel than the Babylonian captivity.

Lower Palestine had been overrun by the Babylonians. Most of the people were carried off and scattered to the far reaches of the Babylonian empire. The magnificent temple that had been built by the great King Solomon was leveled to the ground. Except for a handful of Israelites, who were relocated to the city of Babylon, a once proud and powerful kingdom disappeared from the earth.

In the Israelite tradition, the ideal destiny for the children of Israel was to have authority and power. This had been deeply imbedded in the DNA of a people who believed they were special by call of God. The symbols of that greatness were their capitol city and their temple. Both had disappeared, seemingly forever. Those who had been chosen to survive as slaves in Babylon were primarily of the priestly class and were educated. During the 70 years of their life in Babylon, this small band of Israelite elite became prolific writers, rewriters and recorders of Jewish history and culture. While some dreamed of a day when Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt, there was a small inner circle of writers who saw the people of God in a new role. They saw the people of God as servants of humanity, not rulers. These special writings became a part of the Isaiah material.

After 70 years the descendants of this hardy bunch of slaves were allowed to return to their homeland. They rebuilt a walled city on the site of old Jerusalem and eventually built a new temple as a home for God and in which they could make their animal sacrifices. The glory days of David and Solomon never returned, but the majority of the people did not give up their dream of being the ruling nation of the world. At the same time, largely hidden and barely noticed, the vision of the people of God as a servant people persisted. That vision lurked in the shadows, waiting for the obscure rabbi from Nazareth.

The days of Jesus were not good days for a devout Jew. The temple in Jerusalem was an unholy farce that had been rebuilt for political purposes by a puppet king, who owed his allegiance to the Roman emperor. The priests who cared for the day-to-day operation of the temple were corrupt and obeyed the puppet king rather than Jehovah God.

Jesus did not simply reject the temple system because of its corruption. Confronting corruption was incidental. He kept on message. He proposed the establishment of a new kingdom on earth based on service rather than on authority and power.

There were other rebellious movements among Jews at the time of Jesus. The Zealots were an organized movement that advocated removing corrupt power with military might. Tradition has presented the disciple Peter as one who had dabbled in the Zealot movement. He is pictured as carrying a sword the night Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem. He had not yet absorbed the servant ideal. A key dramatic moment occurred when Jesus told Peter “put up your sword.” He may well have added “my followers do not resort to swords.”

Christians and Christian churches are horribly conflicted. I am pleased (and justly so) with the services that Christians and Christian churches provide to our communities. I could tell endless true stories of the good that is done every day in the name of Jesus. Hospitality, food, clothing, medical care, education, friendship and generous giving of funds. At the same time we seem unable or unwilling to lay down our swords and turn loose of the desire for authority and power.

Speaking of himself, Jesus said “the son of man did not come into the world to be served but to be a servant.” His followers should do no less.


The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer. His e-mail address is [email protected]


[04 June 2010]

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