October 21, 2018 | By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Job 38:1-7; Hebrews 5:1-10; and Mark 10:25-35
“As Christ Jesus is God’s assurance of forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to God’s creatures.”–The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 1933
In Syria, there are the White Helmets. Their official name is the Syrian Civil Defense. In that war-torn nation, they serve mostly in rebel-held territory and claim complete non-partisanship in the war. They are credited with saving over a hundred thousand lives and in the process losing over a hundred of their own. Their actions have made them a target of the Assad regime. Helping people is a war crime.
Then there’s Doctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organization dedicated to dealing with disease outbreaks and other medical problems in conflict zones. They are entirely dependent on volunteers—doctors, nurses, health professionals, sanitation specialists from all over the world. They go to the places no one else wants to go to do what no one else sees much value in doing, helping the poorest and the most victimized. Because they’re in conflict zones, they are at great risk themselves. Right now they are at work in the Yemeni Civil War, in which Saudi Arabia is a major actor, and they have lost hospitals, volunteers, patients, and ambulances to Saudi strikes which the Saudis claim were accidental. Like I said, helping people is a war crime.
I bring these up because they are large-scale examples of a universal reality. Suffering is a reality, whether we like it or not, whether we have a satisfactory explanation for it or not, whether we understand it or not. And whatever else may be said about suffering, it necessitates a certain response. Suffering necessitates service. In a world of suffering, the most important thing any of us can do—as individuals, as worshiping communities, as groups of people, as nations—is to serve those who are suffering. We don’t know why there’s suffering, but we know what to do about it—we should serve those who are suffering.
Jesus wants his conflicted disciples to understand this. James and John come to him and they make, not a request, but a demand: “Grant us to sit, one at your left and one at your right, when you enter your glory.” They probably feel they’ve earned this privilege. They were Jesus’ first disciples. They went with him up the Mountain of Transfiguration and saw Jesus glorified, standing with Moses and Elijah. Now they’re headed to Jerusalem, where they know Jesus’ enemies await him. They’re following him, and they’re scared. So they want to be assured that there’s a reward at the end: They’ll sit on Jesus’ left and right, the highest places of honor in the Kingdom of God.
“There’s a reward at the end.” I remember having a youth leader in high school who told us that she became a Christian because she wanted to know that she was going to heaven when she died! She was a very sweet person and a good Christian and I hope she grew out of that. I remember it because even when I was in high school, that idea felt wrong. Is that what our faith is all about? The reward at the end? It struck me as, well, selfish.
Jesus is gentle with James and John, and he is with us, too, because he knows how much we care about rewards. He knows how much we look at our own suffering and our own sacrifices and think, I deserve something for all I’ve gone through. I deserve good treatment. I deserve a reward.
But Jesus wants us to know that to follow him is not about the reward. There is most certainly a reward at the end, but ironically, if that is our focus, then we’ve missed the point. Jesus asks James and John, “Can you drink from the cup I drink?” They say they can. What he means, of course, is can they drink the cup of suffering he is about to drink?
He gathers all his disciples together and he tells them:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10: 43-45)
Jesus’ point? You will suffer in this world. You will suffer because you follow me. But you aren’t alone: People suffer everywhere, all the time. Don’t take on the characteristics of those who cause them to suffer. Don’t act like one of the power brokers. Don’t seek to acquire power. Rather, surrender it: give it up. A suffering world needs a servant, not an overlord. So be a servant to a world in need. And if you’re wanting to be like me, then understand this: I didn’t come here to be the divine overlord. I came here to be a servant, and to give my life as a ransom for many. So if you want to be like me, don’t be a lord: be a servant.
Jesus compares the Gentile tyrants, like Caesar and Pontius Pilate, unfavorably to someone who has a servant attitude. The comparison calls attention to the two extremes that define the way we deal with suffering.
On the one hand, there’s the “overlord” approach. We don’t like that we live in a world where suffering is a reality, and we want to take control of the world and minimize as much as possible our personal risk of suffering. So we try to dominate others, rather than submitting to them; we acquire riches and status, because with money and status we can minimize suffering; maybe even we can avoid it and rise above it. The more we get, the less we like giving any of it up, because even giving up a little seems like suffering; and so we try to organize our lives so that no one can hurt us or take away what we have. At its worst, people become, as Jesus calls them, tyrants—people who rule their domain, whether it’s their household or their family or their office or an entire nation—with an iron hand. In the process, they make other people suffer—lots of them—all because they themselves want to avoid suffering.
On the other hand, there is service—taking care of the needs of others, often at sacrifice to yourself. Jesus tells us this is what he is doing. Service is the truest and best response to a world in which suffering is a universal reality. Service is at the very core of Christian faith. Bear one another’s burdens, Paul tells us. Jesus consciously and deliberately surrendered his equality with God in order to suffer for our sakes, to die for our sins and be raised up to raise us up. The Christian path isn’t about the reward we get at the end, it is about the gift we give to a world in need. It is about healing the suffering of the world in whatever ways we can.
The author of Hebrews wants us to understand that Jesus’ suffering is at the very core of what makes him our true high priest, who can redeem us and redeem the world. He tells us:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…. (Hebrews 5: 7-10)
The specific suffering the author of Hebrews is talking about is when Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, “with loud cries and tears,” that the cup of suffering be taken from him, but only if it was God’s will; but that he would be obedient and faithful no matter what God’s will was. Ultimately, of course, Jesus wasn’t spared that cup of suffering—and neither are we. But Jesus went obediently, to serve God and to serve humanity.
And the point of it, says Hebrews, is that Jesus suffered, just as we suffer. He could have avoided it, because he was the Son of God. He could have taken the path of the overlord, of the tyrant, and avoided suffering altogether. But instead, he chose to take the same path we all must take; and because he did that, he understands us. He empathizes with us. He knows what our lives are like. He has shared the cup of suffering we all share, and likewise amazingly, we share the cup of suffering he has to drink, too. In an amazing, profound way, our suffering not only makes us more like one another—it makes us more like God.
Several years ago, an organization held a workshop for helping professionals, pastors, social workers, and so forth, on suicide. I had been invited to lead a workshop on Faith and Suicide, because both professionally and personally I have dealt with suicide. Both my mother and a beloved uncle were its victims.
The plenary session was led by a former professional football player whose wife had committed suicide. I don’t know where these people got him, but he was a serious mistake. He was a prosperity Christian, one of these people who believes that God makes you rich and successful, and if you aren’t successful or happy, then you don’t have faith. And that’s what he taught about his wife. She didn’t have faith, and that led her to make what he saw as the “sinful” decision to commit suicide. He was clearly still angry with her, and my impression was that he wasn’t exactly the most loving husband even when she was alive.
The audience was actually traumatized by this presentation. People were crying.
This sort of “faith makes you happy and successful” theology is exactly the kind of “reward” theology I’m talking about. It is evil, frankly, because it doesn’t take the universal reality of suffering seriously.
In contrast, let me tell you a different story. It’s a story about the greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln. Universally, scholars and medical professionals recognize that Lincoln struggled with depression his whole life. What most of us do not know is that there were three points in his early life that he nearly came to suicide. Each was associated with a deep emotional trauma. His friends didn’t criticize him for his bad mental attitude. They didn’t tell him to grow up, or that if he only had faith everything would be alright. They didn’t leave him alone so that he could work it out himself. What they did was surround him with love.
One friend recalled, “Mr. Lincoln’s friends… were compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr. Lincoln, he being from the shock somewhat temporarily deranged….” Another villager said, “Lincoln was locked up by his friends… to prevent derangement or suicide.” …[Another friend remembered that] “After several weeks of worrisome behavior—talking about suicide, wandering alone in the woods with his gun—an older couple in the area took him into their home [until he] improved somewhat.”1
Now, let’s be clear that, even with all of that, there was no guarantee Lincoln would have stayed safe. But as it happened, and to the benefit of American history, he did. And we have these loving, empathetic, sympathetic, and persistent friends to thank for that.
I love these little known, unrecognized friends of Lincoln. You could say that the love and caring of these unknown friends saved our nation. They instinctively knew what sometimes it feels like is easily forgotten: we live in a world of suffering and need, and therefore what is required is not arrogance and superiority and power, not “do it yourself”-ism: but mercy, empathy, service to one other, and love.
Their example speaks to me, as someone who has dealt with mental illness and suicide in my own family. As Christians, we believe that in Jesus, God did not insulate God’s self from human suffering but experienced it directly. The very meaning of Jesus’ life is that God doesn’t abandon or condemn us in our times of vulnerability, weakness, or despair, but rather God meets us there, with love, compassion, empathy, and service to us in our time of need. I don’t believe that the God of mercy, the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world, deals harshly and cruelly with those who’d suffered in this life after they have died. God is the God of grace and mercy, not sadism and cruelty. God ministers to the vulnerable and suffering, and calls us to do the same.
That is what we believe about Jesus. He doesn’t isolate himself from our human experience, he dwells in it, he understands where we’re coming from, and he seeks to help us, not to judge us. And he expects the same of us in our dealings with others. He expects us not to seek to be served, but to serve. That is the real, Godly, faithful response, to a world in need.
1Quoted in Ghaemi, Nassir. A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. New York; Penguin Group, 2011. P. 69.