DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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PALM SUNDAY
Freely We Serve

Philippians 2.7    Of his own free will he gave up all he had and took the nature of a servant.

The traditional vision of Jesus celebrated on Palm Sunday pictures him entering the holy city in regal triumph. The people, so it is said, instinctively knew he was a great man and honoured him as such. Here at last was God's great king, the Messiah-Christ, come to liberate the world from oppression and injustice.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Palm Sunday myth is, as we now know from centuries of rigourous analysis of the gospels, a creation of the early Church. It is part of the process by which Jesus of Nazareth was elevated from man to God.

Not that this was bad or unnatural at the time. It was the way in which people then paid homage to an exceptional life. So, for example, Roman emperors were proclaimed divine after death. As it happens, Jesus the resurrected god had considerable competition from many others.

Jesus probably did enter Jerusalem for Passover. Some people no doubt hoped he would take over the city and the Temple. But the fact is that the authorities - the Romans and their priestly collaborators - noticed him. They judged him a threat and quickly killed him to avoid civil disorder in a city jam-packed with pilgrims.

If Jesus attracted considerable attention on this occasion, he also occasioned great disappointment. One reason was his deliberate emphasis on servitude. An authentic saying of Jesus tends to invite as much incredulity in the 21st century as it no doubt did in its original setting. It is that

If any one of you wants to be great, 
you must be the servant of the rest (Mark 10.43).

Those around him in the first century knew what this meant. The vast majority were what Westerners would today call economic slaves. That is, they lived on or below the breadline and had far less freedom of choice about their work than most do today.

Even now there are still slaves in Africa. But they are enslaved by force, not by circumstance. Nobody in the 21st century would voluntarily accept that lifestyle. A woman in Shanghai chooses to bake food on the street rather than submit to the informal slavery of a clothing sweatshop. A teenager in Togo lives on the street in preference to beatings and starvation as a child slave.

Where does that leave us? We rightly oppose servitude as oppressive and unjust. The great social movements of the past 200 years have all striven to abolish it. What relevance can Jesus then  possibly have for us when he calls us to choose servitude?

The great English poet Milton took this up when he wrote in Paradise Lost that

Freely we serve because freely we love ...
in this we stand or fall.

He is pointing out that love is by definition voluntary. Loving action, the pivot of Christian life, cannot be forced. Service not freely chosen is not true service. This, or something like it, may lead us to an answer to the puzzle of Jesus' call to servitude.

Serving others cannot mean merely taking a position at the bottom of the pile. Such a teaching would make nonsense of our lives - though it might be a useful mechanism for abolishing control freaks in the Church.

No. It seems that the service Jesus has in mind is not the exercise of power for the self-interest of a person or group. Nor is it the holier-than-thou enforcement of orthodoxy or the self-satisfied rescue of the poor or less fortunate. Still less is it the hypocritical assertion of service while simultaneously abusing a position of authority.

Rather, service is to do everything in whatever position one occupies with the good of others to the forefront, just as a faithful servant takes his or her employer's good truly to heart.

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