Our Gospel lesson this week places us in the middle of a really odd scene. Jesus, who throughout His entire ministry rejected even the appearance of being a person of power and honor (He tells His disciples not even to call Him Rabbi) willingly rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, while His disciples wave branches and shout “Hosanna,” a welcome typically reserved for kings and prophets. We have no indication that Jesus resists this display of praise and triumph; in fact, He seems to go along with it happily. What exactly is going on here?
As we’ve already discussed in previous weeks, Jesus’ gospel is a call to people everywhere to stop finding their hope in systems and institutions of power and, instead, to find liberation and salvation in the Spirit’s dwelling in the ordinary and unremarkable. And to consider the apparently illogical idea of finding power in sacrifice. Jesus is well aware that His disciples likely believe He is going to be the messianic figure that Israel is hoping for – a ruling king, who commands an army and destroys the forces of Rome that have been oppressing the people of Israel for generations. And constantly, Jesus subverts this expectation, declaring peace instead of war, self-sacrifice instead of violence, service instead of seeking to rule.
At the end of the previous chapter in Mark Jesus addresses this very issue with His disciples. James and John, two of Jesus’ closest followers come to Jesus with a special request.
“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. And they replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
Jesus is just about to make His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, so James and John undoubtedly speak of His glory as the palace rule they believe Jesus will soon usurp. They are saying that they want to be great, as well. They want the place of honor and glory; to be associated with Jesus in such a way that they are recognized and applauded. Just a few verses before Jesus had foretold His death for the third time and still, His disciples were pursuing their own agenda of power and prestige.
In response to this question we are told that the other ten disciples were indignant, but don’t think that the other ten were innocent. One chapter earlier Jesus had confronted all of them for arguing about who was the greatest. They all were in need of Jesus’ correction.
Taking this as a teachable moment Jesus called them all together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
They all knew that the rulers of the world used power and dominance to get what they wanted. Rulers used others to reach their selfish goals of “greatness.” And, as we’ve said, the disciples – as well as the crowds around them – believed this was exactly what Jesus would do. Jesus, however, makes it clear to His followers that the kingdom of God works differently. Whoever would be great, whoever would live a life of significance, must not use others but serve them instead.
There are six words in the New Testament that can be translated servant. The one that Jesus used here means a simple waiter. One who humbles himself and takes care of others by meeting even the simplest of their needs. Jesus then added the word slave to his description of greatness. What a contradiction of terms. To be a servant was humbling enough but at least you still were your own person. To be a slave meant you had lost every right. You were someone else’s property. They had even the power of life and death over you.
There is an interesting fact from the first-century culture that helps us better understand this use of the word slavery. There was a term known as a “love slave.” It was a slave who had been granted his freedom but because of love had chosen to continue as a slave of his master and his master’s family. This type of servanthood or slavery falls more in line with Jesus’ teaching. God-honoring service cannot be forced on someone. True servanthood is a way of being and living that we willingly submit to and Christ works in our hearts.
Notice, as well, that Jesus says anyone who would be great must be a servant and slave of “all.” We are not to just serve those who can somehow benefit us in return. We are not just to serve those whom we love and are loving towards us. We are not just to serve those who are of higher status or position than we are. We are to be servants of all. This is what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. Our willingness to serve them should not be based on who they are or what they need. It is to be based on the fact that our needs have been fully met in Christ so we are now free to meet the needs of others as the Holy Spirit leads.
This was Jesus’ way of life. He “did not come to be served but to serve.” In the same way that a ransom could be paid to free a slave, so Jesus served us by paying our ransom at the cross and buying our freedom from the slavery of sin and death.
Which brings us back to the dichotomy of His entrance into Jerusalem. The story describes Jesus riding down from the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, and entering the city of Jerusalem. Jews, by the thousands, had assembled in Jerusalem for the celebration of the upcoming Passover. As Jesus approached the city cheers went up and people began to come out and meet Him, praising Him as the promised Messiah. He rode on a donkey and the people laid down their cloaks on the road before Him and waved palm branches in His honor.
A key detail of the story is the type of animal on which Jesus was riding. A conquering king would enter a city riding a horse. A king coming in peace would ride a donkey. Jesus had not come to be an earthly, military king who would free the Jews from Rome. He came in peace, compassion, and humility to serve. Jesus was following the prophecy as seen in Zechariah 9:9 that had been written 500 years before: Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So Jesus is allowing His disciples to see Him as a messianic ruler, knowing full well that in just a few days, He will be arrested, tried, and likely crucified, without resistance or calling for revolt. The contrast Jesus is preparing to display with His life is stunning. Yes, Jesus was coming to be King of the Jews, but not in the way that they desired. He was coming to save them from so much more than the Romans. He came for something greater. He came to free each man, woman, boy, and girl from themselves, the slavery of sin, and an eternity separated from God. Not a salvation from the Romans in the present but a freedom from sin and judgment for all eternity. He came truly as a compassionate servant King.
On this day, the disciples are rejoicing. They believe that at last, Jesus has stepped up into the role of being a messianic liberator. Indeed, He has. But in a way that will in just a few days leave them stunned. The kingdom that Jesus leads is not one where a monarch will sit on a throne, along with a few choice disciples, and rule over the people, but one where the leader kneels at the feet of the poorest, sickest, and most broken within the kingdom and declares, “You are loved and liberated to be who God has created you to be.” This is the subversive, upside-down kingdom that we are called to meditate on in this Lenten Season.
Each of us has been called to be a servant like Christ. Only Christ can grant us a servant’s heart. We must draw near to Him. As our needs are met in Christ we no longer have to be consumed with selfish concerns. We no longer have to use others to “meet our needs.” We are free to serve others.
I’m not saying that service is just a more Christian way to be successful or get what you want. Choosing the way of service may lose you the promotion or the victory. You may not be able to reach your worldly goals with this technique, but if you desire a life of true significance then this is the way to go about it.
To selflessly serve others will demand preparation. We must position ourselves to be ready and able to serve others. We must order our finances so we are able to give to others in need. We must be healthy spiritually so we can minister to others as the Spirit leads. We must be well emotionally so that we help others even in the midst of their pain and suffering. We must be well physically so that we can have the strength and stamina to bear the burdens of others. We must order our time so that we can be free to be with others when they need us most. We must pray for a servant’s heart but we also must position our lives so that we will be able to serve others.
As we enter Holy Week, may we reflect on the ways we believe and participate in false gospels rooted in power and privilege instead of sacrifice and service. If we do not repent and turn from these ways, we too will experience the painful sorrow that the disciples are about to experience – for the systems of privilege and power cost nothing less than our lives.