Between Jesus’s statement about going up to Jerusalem and the story of the blind man sitting by the wayside and calling out for mercy, which we heard from Luke several weeks ago near the beginning of Lent, is this story from Matthew about a mother and her two sons coming to Jesus “desiring a certain thing of him.” It is an intriguing and compelling scene and one which speaks directly to the assumptions of our own culture about education and success. Parents and children are in this story precisely in terms of what we think we want for ourselves and for our children.
Jesus draws out of the mother of Zebedee’s children what she wants. What she says reveals what many parents seek for their children, essentially places of privilege, prestige, and prominence. We want our children to get ahead in the world. What that means is getting ahead of others. Putting ourselves ahead of others means putting others down. What is good for us is at the expense of others. It is an old story and yet a present reality manifest in the ways in which parents scheme and plan to influence and manipulate universities and schools to give special consideration to their children; witness the university admissions scandals in the States. Augustine’s parents, too, saw education, as he says, as means to get ahead in the world. He came to think differently.
Jesus asks the mother what she wants but then turns to the sons themselves. What your parents might want for you may not be what you want. Their ambition for your life and future is one thing and may say more about their own ambitions and dreams. The problem is that it is your life and future. What do you want? That may not be the same thing as what your parents want for you. Their hopes and dreams, however well intentioned, may not be your hopes and dreams. And there is the further problem about our own uncertainties. Do we really know what we want? This is the significance of Jesus’s statement to the mother: “Ye know not what ye ask.” We think we know what is best for ourselves and one another but we don’t. He means, I think, that we have not properly examined our thoughts and our desires. He is questioning the idea of gaining advantage over others. The idea of getting ahead implies the domination over others, of putting others down in order for oneself to get ahead. It assumes a dog-eat-dog kind of world, a world of endless competition, a world of conflict and division.
This Gospel story, read in the context of Passiontide, challenges that outlook. In the encounter with her sons, Jesus refers to his Passion and to our participation in its meaning in terms of “drinking the cup that I shall drink of” and being “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with”. That idea of suffering contrasts with privilege and prestige. This is the point of the reading. We are being taught and shown the idea of service as grounded in sacrifice, the idea of living not simply for ourselves at the expense of one another but of living for and with one another. It counters all of our assumptions about trying to get ahead of others.
The quest for excellence in education and life is about virtue and that is very different from the idea of getting ahead. Virtue in its classical and theological forms requires our care and concern and commitment for the whole community. It cannot be simply about ourselves or ambitions for our children.
The idea of sacrificial service lies at the heart of the ethical teaching that this reading presents to us. “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister,” Jesus says. “Whosoever would be chief among you, let him be your servant,” literally, your slave! Such counter-culture concepts are grounded in the Passion of Christ who has come, he says, “not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This teaching contributes to a later and famous idea formulated by the great German philosopher, Hegel, in the so-called “master-slave dialectic”. The Master thinks that he is free by virtue of his lordship over the Slave who provides for him all his needs. But the Slave discovers his own power precisely in knowing about the processes by which such needs are provided and the Master discovers his dependence upon the Slave. Simply a role reversal? No. Hegel’s point, I think, is the discovery of our mutual interdependence. The hierarchical relation breaks down into mutuality and equality.
The idea of sacrificial service is expressed not in the marketing slogan “be more”, but in the School’s motto, Deo Legi Regi Gregi, which means an education for public service: for God, for the Law, for the King, for the People. That Legi precedes Regi, the Law before the King, is intentional. It belongs to an enlightenment constitutional concept in which the King is not above the Law. The School’s educational ideals all belong to the idea of service and to the forms of our interdependence in community and institutional life.
I am reflecting on this counter-culture Gospel story knowing full well that this week marks the Cadet Corps Mess Dinner and realizing only too well the desire for rank and the prestige of rank within the Cadet Corps. Some of you have rank and will be served tonight by others; some of you will be servers. Those who are served are not superior or better than those who are serving. There is dignity in serving. Serving is not servile. It is about mutual respect and order not prestige and entitlement.
I am also reflecting on this Gospel knowing that this week marks the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. Mary is the symbol of our humanity in its truth and dignity. Christ’s words about his coming to minister and to give his life a ransom for many echo in a way Mary’s profound words, fiat mihi. “Be it unto me according to thy word.” She yields herself freely and fully to God’s will for the redemption of our humanity. Her humility in service corresponds to the divine humility in Christ’s Incarnation and his Passion. Her words embody the true vocation of our humanity.
The true dignity of our humanity is not found in getting ahead and dominating one another. It is not found in the pursuit of power and prestige but only in service and sacrifice. That and that alone connects us to one another rather than pitting us against each other.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy