Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Man of no reputation

There's a famous Rich Mullins song called "Man of no reputation". The song talks about the awesomeness of Jesus' life in the midst of his humility. But I have to wonder, what does it mean to be a man (or in my case woman) of no reputation in our reputation-obsessed world? I ask myself this question as I consider how actually to live the alternative reality of God's kingdom that preachers so eloquently describe. We like vision. We like talk. But, unfortunately, our record is spotty when it comes to implementation. I'm not sure we (myself included) totally get what it means to be a servant of God.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples how God’s standards slip into the world. His tactic has a lot to teach us about leadership, especially in times of uncertainty.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 10:13 TNIV). At first look, this seems strange. Why would the disciples have such a strong response? People were always crowding Jesus, asking to be blessed and healed. Why did it get under the disciples’ skin when some normal folks brought their kids for a blessing? Isn’t this a perfect photo-op? Isn't this the kind of thing preachers and politicians are supposed to do — shake hands and kiss babies?

Mark offers some background in the chapter before this scene when he tells a story about an argument that the disciples had on the road to Capernaum. Jesus overhears the guys grumbling with one another, and he asks what it’s about. They don’t want to tell him—they’re embarrassed that they’ve been arguing about who was the greatest among them. You see the disciple, like us see life and success as a zero-sum game.

Not to get all geek squad on you, but, in game theory, a zero-sum game is a situation in which a player's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other players. If the total gains of all players are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will always sum to zero. The disciples are stuck with the zero-sum assumption that becoming great means making someone else small. But when that's your reality, in the end you all end up with nothing.

Somewhere along the way, we've gotten used to thinking in terms of competition. But Jesus offers this tactic for abundant life: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). If you really want to be great, Jesus said, don’t aspire to become the most successful member of a prestigious family. Jesus tells us and the disciples, if you really want abundant life- try to become least person in the most humble family. Essentially, make yourself the servant of all.

Mark said Jesus called a child to stand beside him as he was teaching this. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,” Jesus said; “and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). In the ancient household, children were somewhat worthless—too young and weak to work or be productive for the family, so they often did the lowliest servant work for their families. In God’s house, Jesus said, welcoming the lowest was the same as welcoming the Father.

So, “When Jesus saw [the disciples rebuking the children], he was indignant” (Mark 10:14). The disciples weren’t simply shooing away some pesky kids—they were publicly rejecting the instruction Jesus had recently given them. Resources were limited, the disciples thought, and Jesus’ time and energy should only be spent on the most promising candidates. There still competing for God's blessing like it's a zero-sum game.

As crazy as it might seem to young revolutionaries, Jesus said you don’t overthrow the system of this world by beating the rulers at their own game. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” Jesus said at the conclusion of this exchange with the disciples. “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” (Mark 10:42-44).

Jesus offers Christians a different approach. We usher in a new way of thinking about success by subversively submitting to others. We expose the lie of this world’s system by rejecting the greatness that it aspires to and worships. We wholeheartedly proclaim the goodness of our Father and his idea of success when we delight in being his children. When we find ourselves utterly dependent on God and one another, the lowliest of servants in God’s great kingdom- then, and only then, we've reached "the top."

Somehow, Christians (and for that matter churches) have got to learn to do as much good as possible, AND not care about who gets the credit.

I was reminded of this just yesterday when I heard a story about a doctor named Jerry. Though he is a very successful oncologist (in high demand in his field) he spends one day a week away from his practice to help his church's local food pantry, and he is looking for other ways to serve. The world would tell him that he is very busy and important, but he knows better. He knows that to really have that abundant life, he's got to serve "the least of these."

When I wonder what it means for me to be a woman of no reputation, thoughts of people like Jerry come to mind. I have been blessed to know others like him. These humble servants remind me that there is no system of the world inside which we can’t walk and serve with Jesus.

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