“Do you know who I am?’ the magistrate, his face turning red with anger asked.
Paul replied, It is not necessary to know who you are, I know what you are.”
The magistrate boiled over and exclaimed, “You’ll pay dearly for this,” and then walked away.
That white man was convinced that he was superior to Mahabane simply because he was a magistrate and a white person. And it’s clear that it had become second nature to him to expect others, especially if they were black, to serve him.
In our Gospel text from St. Luke today (prediction narrative) the disciple are arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus’ response is clear and direct, “if anyone wishes to be first, he [or she] shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Who is the greatest? This conversation has been going on in the Church for centuries especially between clergy and laity. Clergy often demand to be treated as the greater. By the late 20th century it was beginning to get better, but now it is getting bad again. I think this is what led to Pope Francis addressing the issue a couple of years ago. Francis has made it clear that this expectation of entitlement or clericalism as it is well known by those who serve as priests is totally unacceptable. He said, “Clericalism is an illness in the church, an ailment that pretends that deacons, priests and bishops are greater than those they serve. They ignore or minimize the God-given grace and talents of laypeople and emphasize the authority of clergy rather than their obligation to serve.” Pope Francis went on to say, “To say no to abuse in the Church is to say an emphatic no to all forms of clericalism.” That is to all forms of elitism.
We must remember the words of Jesus, if you want to be great, then you must serve the needs of others. The really great people, those who are fondly remembered, are not those who sought to further themselves and their own interests, but rather those who devoted themselves to furthering the interests of the community.
Service implies that you’re not there for yourself. You are there for others. In order to serve, one has to be very self-effacing. A true servant has to get used to being taken for granted. Of course, we never put up with abuse. That is never acceptable. But you come to realize that you might not be thanked and yet you continue to serve.
It is imperative that we always remember that no group of people is greater than another. We always need to listen to a variety of people in order to collect the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. I realize that I am preaching to the choir here but let me say service is always for the sake continuity. Whites are not greater than people of color, the rich are not greater than the poor, politicians are not greater than those they serve, judges and lawyers are not necessarily greater than the defendant, those who are straight are not greater than those who are gay, priests are not greater than the laity. We all have our distinct gifts and should use them for the good of others. Greatness is found in those who serve the needs of others. The words of the Lord from the Prophet Micah also come to mind this afternoon. The prophet says, “You have been told, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Since I began with a story, let me conclude with one. This story goes like this. Dr. Olin Binkley was a Baptist who taught and was president of a small theological seminary in Kentucky. He died in 1999 at the age of 91. When Olin was a student a Wake Forest College, when in his youth, his finances were exhausted before Christmas of his first year. He went home. His parents were quite poor. In those days, and those days were right around the time of The Great Depression, there were no government or other educational loans. But when the family had gathered around the Christmas dinner table, his mother placed a fruit jar with coins and bills beside his plate and announced that Olin was indeed going back to school. Looking at this mothers’ stained and coarsened hands, he began to realize that for many months she had cracked bushels of walnuts from the trees that grew on their property. By selling the kernels of the nuts, she had been able to save some money with which to send her son back to college. Olin Binkley resolved – as the enormousness of his mother’s work and dedication became increasingly real to him while he looked from her walnut-stained hands to the contents of that jar – to put the Kingdom of God first. He applied himself to his own work with a similar dedication, and before the age of 25 he earned a college degree, two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. from Yale University. Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Now which of the two was greater – the young man with a Ph.D. in his hands or the poorly educated mother with walnut stains on her hands? Actually both have their distinctive forms of greatness – but the world is a very poor judge of greatness.
That is the message for today – receive one child in Jesus’ name and we receive Jesus himself and second if you wish to be first then be willing to be the last one of all and the servant of all.
God bless you.