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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Service, not prestige

Here is my reflection from today's Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The recent story in the press about Freemasons Lodges in Westminster reflects a continuing concern that we may live in a world where much business is done through exclusive networks; which could involve spheres of influence such as the so-called ‘Old Boy's Networks’ or specific organisations where opportunities may exist to exercise influence or seek favours. As there can be a lack of full transparency about such networks, rumours abound and there is no simple way to verify the facts of the matter.

Our Gospel story (Matthew 20. 17 - 28) suggests that 'in-crowds' and 'favours' were also a part of thinking and practices in Jesus' time. The mother of James and John asked Jesus for a favour, in the way that it is alleged favours can be granted in certain networks today. She wanted her sons to be privileged over and above the others in the group and used a private conversation to make her request.

What James and John were after was another perennial temptation for us as human beings; the desire for prestige, in this case, the request to sit on the right and left of Jesus in glory. Similarly it has been suggested that within networks of influence there may be pathways to prestige which are essentially open on the basis of birth, wealth or power.

Jesus calls this whole approach into question with his response to James and John. Today we would characterise what he says in relation to discussions of rights and responsibilities. Jesus says firstly that places of prestige are not available without sacrifice (i.e. no rights without responsibilities), in other words there is no entitlement because of birth, schooling, friendships, networks. What matters in the kingdom of God is service and sacrifice and these not for the sake of future prestige and glory, but for their own sake and for the love of others.

'Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Jesus turns the search for prestige on its head. Instead of the prestige of being first being the goal and the reward, those who are great in the kingdom of God are those who make themselves the least; those who are prepared to serve in same way as Jesus, by laying down their life for others.

James and John say they are prepared to do this but it is ultimately about deeds, not words, and their action in asking their mother to ask for a favour on their behalf clearly shows that they hadn't understood his teaching and practice at this stage in their relationship with him.

Where are we in relation to these issues? Are we chasing after worldly rewards and prestige; seeking it through favours or paying for prestige? Maybe, like James and John, we have brought the values of the world into the kingdom of God and are trying to follow Jesus for some form of personal gain?

Lent is an opportunity for self-reflection on these issues and provides us with the possibility of aligning of thinking, values and deeds with those of Jesus as we become the servants or slaves of others; in order that we serve instead of being served and give our lives for the sake of others.


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