20 September 2015
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20B (RCL)
James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
The English language has no pure future tense; we have to resort to auxiliary verbs. “I will read a book,” which implies volition; “I shall read a book,” which implies obligation; “I am going to read a book,” which implies motion. That makes translating the future tense in other languages always a question of interpretation. In our Gospel reading today, the translators of the NRSV have chosen to interpret Jesus’ saying in what I believe is an unacceptable way. The NRSV reads, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The Greek for the second occurrence of the verb “to be” is in the future. The NRSV chose to interpret with the metaphor of obligation and rendered it in the subjunctive. The Greek says, “Whoever wants to be first will be last of all and servant of all, as a matter of fact.” That changes the tone entirely.
I think we read this, as translated by the NRSV, as a way of gaming the system. By claiming a false humility, by pretending to be last of all and servant of all, I am winning for myself a place of honor. In my opinion, this couldn’t be farther from Jesus’ meaning. In the next chapter of Mark’s Gospel, James and John come to Jesus, asking to sit, one on his right and one on his left, in his kingdom, imagining that he is on his way to Jerusalem to reestablish the throne of David. Jesus replies that to sit at his right or left is for those for whom it has been appointed. Jesus uses a rare euphemism for “left,” which occurs only one other place in Mark’s Gospel — in reference to the bandits crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. The one who wants to be first, will be last of all.
The passage from James’ epistle makes a similar point. Ambition leads to discord. What is the solution? Submit yourselves to God, and resist the devil. If you draw near to God, God will draw near to you. Submission is not a popular idea, and it has certainly been badly misused in Christian history, but the idea of trying to draw our desires into line with what God desires might be helpful for us. The Christian life is an ongoing process of conversion, and of drawing near to God.
Jesus ends his instructions to his disciples by embracing a child and placing the child at their center. We have romanticized childhood. We think of sweet innocence, guilelessness and all the rest when we think of children. In Jesus’ day, children were non-entities almost. I never understood this until I visited South Sudan. The child mortality rate was about 50% before the age of five, so people did not become overly attached to children. The children I saw were almost always dirty, unkempt, wearing whatever clothes were handy (boys often in dresses, girls in pants or simply t-shirts), and pretty much free-range. I could never figure out which compound kids belonged to — they just ranged around the village at will. No one worried about where the children were, or what they were doing. The occasional adult would chase a group of them away with a stick, and off they would tumble to the next thing.
Jesus takes one of these urchins in his arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We may think we don’t treat our children like the South Sudanese treat theirs, but there is plenty of evidence we do. In the suburbs, we may convince ourselves that we value our children, but only if they are the right color and live at the right addresses. As for the rest, let them tumble around free-range for all we care. Jesus challenges us to see the world from their perspective. Children are absolutely dependent on the social structures around them. There is no ambition for anything beyond who is king of the playground today. Our disputes are as silly as theirs. We are to welcome them in his name, that is, as his ambassadors. This is how we draw near to God.