PS 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
This week’s gospel seems obvious in its moral message. Our passage from Mark offers two main lessons. First, we have a lesson about the centrality of the cross in the life of the disciples. James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and left hand. Jesus, alluding to his own death, where two criminals sit at his right and left hand, both crucified as he is, reminds James and John that he will only enter into glory through suffering.
Second, Jesus offers a lesson in leadership which is marked by taking on the role of the servant. Jesus tells the Twelve that “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” In her commentary on Mark, Adela Yarbro Collins writes that
The force of the statement is that leadership in the communities of followers of Jesus is not to be self-aggrandizing and self-serving; rather, it is to be characterized by service to the other members of the community and to the good of the community as a whole. Indeed, the leader should consider his or her role to be analogous to that of a slave belonging to the community. This model suggests that the leader’s service should be centered on the needs of the community, not on her or his own.
While this gospel might be obvious as far as what Jesus is teaching about the moral life, just how this might pertain to our own lives is less obvious. In fact, just today (before I even looked at the gospel), my daughter came to me and said “Give me some milk.” To which I responded, “I am not your slave. You need to ask politely.” Indeed, I am not her slave nor do I want to be. But I have to admit that when I read this week’s gospel, about five minutes after this exchange with my daughter, it crossed my mind that maybe I was wrong about that.
The fact is that (1) seeking out suffering and (2) willfully submitting ourselves to others are both kind of distatesful ideas for contemporary readers. I can remember in my own formation as a moral theologian, the idea of both self-love and self-care were heavily emphasized, and for good reason. Especially for women, where the moral ideal has so often been submittal and sacrifice, the turn to self-care is a good move. In my still-newish role as a stay-at-home mom, I find myself constantly offering up prayers of thanksgiving for the work that so many feminists did before me to make my life a lot better than the generations of women that came before me.
And yet, there is still this gospel. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The conclusion of the gospel reminds us that our own lives must be marked by a conscious imitation of Jesus both in his role as a servant and in his sacrifice on the cross. How then do we reconcile this with an understanding of proper self-love and self-care?
Like so many tensions in the Christian life, this tension between the emphasis on slavery and sacrifice and the need for proper self-care is not easily resolved, but there are practices that can help us develop the requisite virtues for navigating a path between. One such practice, highly emphasized in earlier periods of the church but not so much now, would be voluntary mortification. Though this has taken the form of self-flagellation and hair shirts, we might re-conceptualize what such a practice could look like in our current era. It may include taking on an onerous chore without drawing attention to the fact that we are doing so or intentionally spending time with an annoying but lonely neighbor or family member. Mortification that both causes some degree of suffering and offers service to the neighbor is ideal in light of this passage in that such actions train us both to take up our cross and submit ourselves “in slavery” to others, but also, unlike hair shirts and self-flagellation, are less prone to violate the need for self-love.
Ultimately, the goal of mortification is not at odds with self-love, if we do it properly. The goal is not to hate oneself, but to perfect oneself through conscious imitation of Jesus Christ.