Editor’s Note: Many American Christians are inclined to boast about the United States and its uni-polar power – a kind of geopolitical chant of “we’re number one” – even as they put bumper stickers on their cars asking “what would Jesus do?”

The contradiction between this muscular power projection of many Christians and the humble teachings of Jesus are so striking that retired Baptist minister Howard Bess wonders whether many of these believers understand what Jesus actually preached:

Among the aphorisms of Jesus is a simple message that his initial followers found troubling: “If any among you would be great, let him be a servant of all.” This saying is found in both the Matthew gospel and the Mark gospel. 

The two gospels set the story a bit differently. However, in both versions, a dispute has arisen among Jesus’s disciples, vying for first place after Jesus was expected to become a powerful ruler. They were looking forward to the day when they would be top dogs in a powerful ruling kingdom.
 
But Jesus had a different vision. The people of God were to be a servant people.

Jesus pointed out to his disciples that other people aspired to greatness by exercising authority, adding: “It shall not be so among you!”

To buttress this point, Jesus quoted from the Isaiah writings of the Old Testament, a passage written during the period of the Babylonian captivity, arguably the lowest point in the ancient history of the Israelites.

Lower Palestine had been overrun by the Babylonians. Most of its inhabitants had been carried off and scattered to the far reaches of the Babylonian empire. The magnificent temple that had been built by King Solomon was leveled to the ground.

Except for a handful of Israelites, who were relocated to the city of Babylon, a once proud and powerful kingdom had disappeared from the earth.

This outcome was a terrible blow to the Israelite tradition which envisioned the children of Israel possessing authority and power, an attitude deeply imbedded in the psyche of a people who believed they were specially designated by God.

The symbols of that greatness had been their capital city, Jerusalem, and their temple. Both were gone, seemingly forever. 

Those who had been chosen to survive as slaves in Babylon were primarily of the priestly class and were educated.  During the 70 years of their life in Babylon, this small band of Israelite elite became prolific writers, rewriters and recorders of Jewish history and culture.

While some dreamed of a day when Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt, there was a small inner circle of writers who saw the people of God in a new role. They saw the people of God as servants of humanity, not rulers. These special writings became a part of the Isaiah material.

After 70 years, the descendents of this hardy bunch of slaves were allowed to return to their homeland. They rebuilt a walled city on the site of old Jerusalem and eventually built a new temple as a home for God, and in which they could make their animal sacrifices.

The glory days of David and Solomon never returned, but the majority of the people did not give up their dream of being the ruling nation of the world. At the same time, largely hidden and barely noticed, this other vision of the people of God being a servant people persisted. That vision lurked in the shadows, waiting for the obscure rabbi from Nazareth.

The days of Jesus were not good days for a devout Jew. The temple in Jerusalem was an unholy farce that had been rebuilt for political purposes by a puppet king who owed his allegiance to the Roman emperor. The priests who cared for the day-to-day operation of the temple were corrupt and obeyed the puppet king rather than Jehovah God.

Jesus did not simply reject the temple system because of it corruption. Confronting its corruption was incidental to his more profound message. He proposed the establishment of a new kingdom on earth based on service rather than on authority and power.

There were other rebellious movements among Jews at the time of Jesus. The Zealots were an organized movement that advocated removing corrupt power by military might. Tradition presents the disciple Peter as one who had dabbled in the Zealot movement and who is pictured carrying a sword the night Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem.

Peter had not yet absorbed the servant ideal. A key dramatic moment occurred when Jesus told Peter “put up your sword.” Jesus may well have added: “My followers do not resort to swords.”

This core message from Jesus has left many Christians and Christian churches horribly conflicted. (Some Christians prefer to view Jesus in the militaristic image from the Book of Revelation, the last book added to the New Testament, rather than from his actual teachings recorded in the gospels.)

But the message of service also shines through. I am pleased -- and justly so -- with the services that Christians and Christian churches provide to many communities. I could tell endless true stories of the good that is done every day in the name of Jesus: hospitality, food, clothing, medical care, education, friendship and generous giving of funds.

At the same time, we seem unable or unwilling to lay down our swords and give up the desire for authority and power.

Speaking of himself, Jesus said “the son of man did not come into the world to be served but to be a servant.” His followers should do no less.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net. 

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