A Sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (19/09/21): At the Mercy of Others

Mark 9:30-37

God at the mercy of humans
Jesus tells his disciples, again:
The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.
Jesus is preaching and teaching. Jesus is working wonders. Jesus is causing a stir and creating a following. Jesus is demonstrating that he is the Son of Man, The Messiah. But the defining moment of what all this means lies ahead. It lies in the reality that Jesus will be betrayed by a friend. He will be abandoned by the others. He will be handed over first to the chief priests and their allies – the ruling elite in Jerusalem, and then to Romans, into the hands of Empire. And he will be killed. But on the third day God will confirm that all that Jesus says and does is true – by raising him from the dead
The Gospel is that God places himself at the mercy of human beings. God places himself at the mercy of human beings. And human beings prove that they have no mercy. The good news is that God by contrast does have mercy. In Jesus God comes to us in person. God, emptied of everything but love, presents himself to us in human form. There is a necessary connection between Christmas and Easter. The fragile vulnerable child lying in the manager is the same fragile vulnerable human being hanging on the cross. God places himself at our mercy.

Not at the mercy of others
The cross is the ultimate power of human beings over other human beings. It is Empire’s symbol of dominance and control. And it is this power that human beings constant strive to free themselves from. Not to be at the mercy of others. Since we know others have no mercy! Freedom is the great objective of our society and culture. The ambition to gain wealth is the ambition to be free of the constraints that poverty imposes, to have endless means with which to make free choices. The ambition to gain power is the ambition to be free of the constraints that the power of others imposes. The object of our ambition is not to be at the mercy of others, not to be dependent. And the more power we have, the more wealth we have, the less there are above us to be at the mercy of. Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, human ambition organises human society in a hierarchical way. Some are at the top and others (more) are at the bottom. We can picture it as a ladder, or as a pyramid And the higher up that diagram anyone finds themselves the more free, the less at the mercy of others, they are.

Who is the greatest?
The disciples have not been listening to Jesus as they have walked along. They have already heard his prediction before. They have heard him predict his rejection-death-resurrection already. They have heard that he will be at the mercy of the powerful. And they didn’t like it the first time they heard it. This was not why they were following him. This is not why they had left everything behind to go where he led. They had placed themselves in his hands only to fall back into the control of others. To find themselves once more at the mercy of those in power. They want those who they are currently at the mercy of: the Romans, the Chief priests and the whole ruling class in Jerusalem, the rich and relatively powerful removed, overthrown. Removed and overthrown and replaced with the Messiah, their Messiah. Which being close to Jesus means that they are much closer to the top than they were before, not at anyone’s mercy except his. And they at least trust Jesus to have mercy with them. Jesus is Lord!
The temptation is to think that places his followers in a position of dominance, with the kind of freedom from control that anyone and everyone is seeking, by other means. But of course there are still the other followers of Jesus. The disciples among themselves would still prefer not to be at the mercy even of any of their colleagues. So as they walk they fall into a discussion, which of them is the greatest. Among the twelve, how is that ladder, how is that pyramid arranged? Who is at the top. which is much nearer the top than it used to be? Who is at the bottom, which is much further from the bottom than it used to be? Not so very long ago Jesus had rebuked Peter for setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. Now the whole group of the disciples demonstrate that they have not escaped human ways of thinking. They are still visualising human society arranged as a ladder or a pyramid. Though now with themselves much nearer the top, no longer under the control of so many others, not at their mercy. And even amongst themselves that is the kind of arrangement they anticipate. The body of disciples would be nothing other than a microcosm of the larger human society around them with some at the top, and others at the bottom. Their ambition, their desire to be free, means that they argue among themselves who is the greatest.

The great reversal
Jesus announces that the world is to be turned upside down. The kingdom of God is where the bottom is the top and the top is the bottom. Jesus’ message is literally revolutionary! The thing is with most revolutions is that the reversal which they produce merely changes who is at the top. It is easy to mistake Jesus’ talk in this way. It is probably this mistake which in part the disciples are making. They are fed up of being at the bottom, of being at the mercy of others. Their ambition is to be free of that. At first sight Jesus seems to tap into that ambition
Whoever wants to be first must be last.
That certainly sounds like the language of ambition. And also sounds like a way to the top Put yourself at the bottom now, because when the great reversal comes. . . . It suggests that rivalry between the disciples had been merely misdirected. That had been engaged in a race to the top when they should have been racing to the bottom. The consequence of such races and such revolutions are too well known. The group who was at the mercy of others now has the power, and those who were once in power are now at their mercy. And as the cross has already demonstrated human beings have no mercy. The consequences of the that sort of revolution are always terrible. But that isn’t quite what Jesus says and it isn’t what he means.
Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.
That last clause, “and servant of all” undoes all hierarchies, even upside down ones. The ladder is knocked over. The pyramid demolished. Jesus employs the language of human ambition but uses it to direct us toward mutual concern for one another. A community where all are servants of all others is a community in which there is no first and last. Jesus dissolves all the hierarchies which humans arrange themselves into, where some are more dependent than other, and where those at the bottom are at the mercy of those at the top. Jesus proposes that his people become a community where all are at the mercy of all others. And a community where mercy is shown by all to all.

The child at the mercy of us
What would you have done? This is a question that is sometimes asked of those moments in history when morality and power and human need collide. Those moments in history where justice and righteousness are drawn into stark relief. The holocaust: what would you have done? Would you have stood with the staid Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and tried to overthrow Nazi tyranny? The civil rights movement in the US: what would you have done? Would you have stood with Martin Luther King and demand to his people be set free? In El Salvador as death squads preyed on the poor and politically active: what would you have done? Would you have stood with Archbishop Oscar Romero and demanded an end to the violence and relief for the suffering of his people. Where fragile vulnerable humanity has been at the mercy of the power: what would you have done? The answer to that is always given to that question is another question:
What are you doing now?
Confronted with Jesus’ ministry, confronted with his vision of the world turned upside down, confronted with his call to a commitment to the God who places himself at our mercy: What would you have done? What makes answering that question difficult and scary is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero were all killed because they shared Jesus’ vision and committed themselves to mercy toward the fragile and the vulnerable. For them following Jesus meant taking up their cross in a very literal way

Part of what I think we do when we are reading the gospel stories is to place ourselves inside them; to imagine ourselves in the crowd as Jesus preaches and heals., to stand alongside the disciples as Jesus argues with the Pharisees, to try to experience for ourselves the reality of the presence of Jesus, to picture ourselves in this scene. At which point we might have to ask: what would you have done? Jesus in fact offers a simple practical test:
He took a child and put it among them, taking it in his arms he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Jesus’ test is our treatment of the weak and the vulnerable. A child is the most evident example of vulnerability – they are dependent on the adults around them. They are at their mercy. But there is a long list of vulnerable and dependent people who are at others’ mercy to a greater or lesser extent, the frail elderly, the sick and mentally unstable, asylum seekers and refugees, the ex-offender, the homeless. The list can go on and on. And it includes people that in truth we might not necessarily be as comfortable with as we are with children. No one really needs Jesus to tell them that it is a good thing to care for the weak amongst us. No one really denies that mercy is probably a good thing. Even if then not nearly enough people act upon that. What is really distinctive about Jesus is the way he identifies with the vulnerable. And the way he identifies them with himself. What would you do when confronted with Jesus? The answer to that question is in fact easy to discern. Because we are confronted by Jesus in the child, and in all those fragile vulnerable people who are at our mercy. Confronted with Jesus the chief-priest and the Romans had no mercy, they crucified him. But in rejecting Jesus they rejected God. Because Jesus goes a step further. Not only does he identify the poor with himself. He identifies himself with God. How you respond to him is how you respond to God. What would you do? So now our relationship with God is not abstract or theoretical. It is real and practical and immediate!. In the weak and the vulnerable, in the child, God places himself at our mercy. What would you do?

At the Mercy of Others by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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