It was my privilege to preach at Nashotah House last night on the Feast of St. James. Somehow I managed only a bare mention James of Zebedee, but focused rather on the rightly famous (and controverted) “ransom saying” of Matthew 20:28 “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Students of the NT will know that both the authenticity and the background to the saying are a matter of dispute, and it is little wonder that this is so. After all, the saying portrays Jesus not only making a prediction of his death but with a self-consciousness of its uniqueness and atoning character. If authentic, the saying devastates the standard claims which credit the early church for making meaningful the death of Jesus, a meaning of which he would have been innocent. This is well understood by many who have battled over the authenticity question. For a thoroughly critical and painstaking defense of the authenticity of the ransom logion, pride of place must now belong to my former teacher, Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005). Scot manages to hold his readers in chapter after chapter of suspense, sustaining a large-scale and convincing argument. But it is well worth the read for those so inclined.
Nonetheless, my interest was rather more “ethical.” What does following the one who “came not to be served but to serve” really mean? The most serious question about this saying is not whether we can account for its history but whether we can account for our history in relationship to it. This is Jesus, after all, forming a new culture, a conscious counterpoint to the power structures and prerogatives of the Greco-Roman world (which is not all that unlike our own).
Might I suggest that if we have understood these words of Jesus at all we have probably misunderstood them ever so subtly. The point here is not that Jesus in his greatness as the Son of Man has nonetheless deigned to lower himself and play the role of a servant. This understanding—so close to being right—is actually all the more dangerous for that. The point here is not that Jesus in his greatness as the Son of Man has condescended to a temporarily out-of-character servanthood. It is rather that his greatness as the Son or Man is displayed in his servanthood. His servanthood is not a short-lived departure from his greatness, but, rather the very essence and expression of it.
For as long as we misunderstand the glory of Jesus as the antithesis of his humility, we will be strangers to humility ourselves. We will think that we are being like Jesus whenever we draw self congratulatory attention to the striking incompatibility between our rank and our menial acts of service. We will think it is admirable that someone with our status and accomplishments and importance temporarily sets those aside to take up basin and towel. We will think it notable that someone like us cares so little for his station that he will stoop low. We will feel slighted when our humility is not admired and noted. Indeed, we will make sure that our humility is as well known to others as it is to us, and our servility will be to us and to them a never-ending source of wonder and admiration. And, if we are skillful, it will not even look like this is what we are doing.
This is what happens when we think that humility is a path to greatness rather than greatness itself. This is what becomes of us when we think that our occasional quaint forays into servanthood are meant to adorn our majesty. This is what the church reduces itself to when it sprinkles the waters of baptism onto structures and assumptions and ways of being that are not the way of Jesus. If we baptize a hierarchical ecclesiology—and we have—then we must go the whole way and not sprinkle blessing upon power, prerogative, and abuse but rather mercilessly drown it all into the death of Jesus so that it may be raised to newness of life by the one who gave his life as a ransom for many sinners.