‘ . . . whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ Mark 10:44
Most of us will probably remember things we were told time and time again when we were young; things remain in our head a long time after we heard them. One of the things I remember being told frequently was, ‘God looks after those who look after themselves’. I’m not sure why God even came into the conversation, we weren’t religious people; but the message was clear, work hard, behave yourself and someone will make sure that you are rewarded.
I think it was really a cover for my mother to get me out of the house, but nevertheless, out I went. I sold vegetables, I pumped petrol, I painted chicken houses, I hoed fields of herbaceous plants, I picked up potatoes, I cut irises; and I cycled or walked just about everywhere because that was the only way to get there. All the time there was this vague notion that this effort was leading somewhere. Everyone thought the same; you worked hard because that was the only way you knew. ‘God will look after those who look after themselves’.
I was astonished years later to discover that our way of thinking hadn’t just sprung from nowhere; it was deeply rooted in the pages of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 28, it was clearly summed up, be honest, keep the rules, work hard and you will be abundantly prosperous.
The view of life was that if you looked after yourself, then God would look after you. Psalm 37 says, ‘I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread’.
The message is clear, keep the rules and all will go well. The message is also clear for those who are going through hard times, ‘they must have done something to deserve it’.
Jewish people had a very firm belief that God was active at all times and in all places; if someone was suffering, then God must have a reason for it. Jesus has a row with the Pharisees in John Chapter 9. Jesus heals a man who has been born blind and Jesus’ own disciples ask him, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’ If God looked after those who kept the rules, if there was something wrong, then you must have done something wrong to deserve it.
The Old Testament attitude towards life became very deeply rooted in the popular thinking of Protestant countries: work hard and all will go well; if things go wrong, then it’s your own fault.
When the great famine hit Ireland 160 years ago the response of the English government was based on this thinking. The Times newspaper in London commented, ‘It is the old thing, the old malady breaking out. It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence’. The English logic was that if Irish people were dying of starvation, then it must be their own fault, because that was the way the world worked.
Even worse than the logic of the London Times was the argument of Protestant evangelicals like Alexander Dallas and the Society for Irish Church Missions who viewed the famine as God’s judgment on the Irish people for remaining Roman Catholics. To say to people that God is causing their children to die because they belong to the wrong church seems very far from Jesus.
‘God looks after those who look after themselves’ can motivate people to get up and work hard, it can also make people who have suffered misfortune in their lives feel that God has not favoured them and that they have no part in a church community where everyone else is outwardly successful.
It is important that we understand this ethos of work and prosperity if we are going to understand today’s Gospel reading. James and John ask that when Jesus comes to power they will be given positions of influence. We read the passage now and we see their request as arrogance or presumptuousness, but James and John knew their Scriptures. If they obeyed God, if they kept the rules, then Deuteronomy promised that they would receive abundant blessings. In the light of what they have heard in the scriptures, their request is reasonable, nor does Jesus condemn them, he says such places are not his to grant.
Jesus does go on to turn the teaching of Deuteronomy on its head. Deuteronomy promises that God’s people will be feared by all, it promises that they will be head of all things. Jesus says that God’s people should be servants, that whoever wants to be first should be slave of all. This is a far remove from the theology of Alexander Dallas which suggested God would allow children to die. It is a far remove from the past that so shaped our thinking.
Anyone who has read those chapters from Deuteronomy, anyone who has read the lines from Psalm 37, will know that this is not the way the world is. We have all known good, honest, hard-working people who have endured terrible suffering; we have all known people who have obeyed God and laboured hard all their lives and never had a penny to spare.
Jesus questions his disciples’ attitudes and in doing so he questions us.He expects us to work hard, but to work in the service of others. It’s a troubling prospect; it challenges our Protestant ethos, it challenges our Christian faith.