Servanthood, Suffering, and Sacrifice

Servanthood, Suffering, and Sacrifice

James Newton Poling

Sermon for Chapel, GETS

October 15, 2009

Text: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

It is a little bit drastic – hiring someone to kill your husband. But after 22 years being battered and sexually abused, Delia was afraid that her children and probably she herself will be killed. She had gone to her mother who said – you made your commitment to this marriage, now you have to make it work. She had gone to the police— who had written a restraining order and kept her husband in jail overnight when he violated it. But he tore it up and threatened to kill her if she did it again. She had gone to the shelter, but her husband found her and threatened to kill her parents. So she did the only other thing she could think of that would get rid of him forever.

In the film, Broken Vows, where Delia tells her story, Marie Fortune said: “Delia’s behavior is not something I condone, nor something I recommend, but her actions are something that I can understand. The community failed her completely and finally she acted in self-defense to save her own life and that of her children.” (( for more information about Faith Trust Institute and their educational resources. “Broken Vows” is one of their training tapes.)

So I wonder what this scripture about servanthood, suffering and sacrifice might say to Delia. Actually, Delia talked to her priest and he said that divorce was against God’s laws, that women should serve their husbands, and that her suffering and sacrifice could be the channel of salvation for her husband.

When we preach this text, we have to think carefully about who is in the congregation. If a victim of family violence is in my congregation on Sunday and I preach the usual sermon about servanthood, suffering, and sacrifice, I will likely contribute to years of captivity for her and her children. We know that domestic violence often leads to murder, but usually it is the murder of women and children.

Most of the commentaries are little help. For example, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1995) says: “This passage insists upon the death of Jesus as a pattern in which his followers participate.” The author continues by saying that we should all be “slaves in service to others.” (New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, V 8, Abingdon, 1995, p 654.)

Just a few days ago I was reading about the preaching directed at enslaved persons in the U.S. during the 19th century. When African Americans were baptized, the white preachers asked them two questions:

Preacher: Who made you?

Person: God made me.

Preacher: Why did God make you?

Person: to serve my earthly master?

For several hundred years, servanthood was a euphemism for enslaving persons of African descent and their children for life. White Christian theologians used Mark 10:45 to justify slavery saying that some groups are destined to be slaves of others. Jacquelyn Grant says that servanthood is used today to enforce the subordination of women in churches. She suggests we stop using the servanthood image and focus instead on discipleship. (James Poling, Deliver Us From Evil, Fortress, 142; Jacquelyn Grant, “The Sin of Servanthood,” in Emilie Townes, A Troubling in my Soul, Orbis, 1993, 200. See also Dwight Hopkins, Down, Up, and Over, Fortress, 2000, 51ff.)

We preachers of the church have been guilty of a narrow interpretation of Mark 10:45. Jacqueline Grant has a point – the larger image is discipleship. That is, we must know and follow the whole story of Jesus, not just a few proof-texts that emphasize servanthood, suffering and sacrifice. For battered women and persons forced into involuntary servanthood and slavery, these doctrines have been used to enforce evil systems. So what should we preach that takes into account the whole gospel and the varied experiences of our congregations?

When preaching on this morning’s scripture, instead of prescribing servanthood and suffering without regard for its social consequences, we must emphasize the common good and God’s care for the members of the community who are vulnerable, such as children and those who are oppressed.

We must emphasize other texts that lead to empowerment and liberation. That is, discipleship includes the prophetic task of opposing evil as abuse of power, especially when it is done in God’s name.

Victims of family violence need images of empowerment to balance the images of servanthood and suffering. What does merging these two ideas look like?

We might preserve images of servanthood, suffering and sacrifice for some situations. For example, we all need constant reminders about how to serve the needs of children, the vulnerable, and the common good. In a capitalist society, we are encouraged to become consumers and accumulate wealth; rather than becoming servants who sacrifice our ambitions and money to help others. We need a political theory of sacrifice for the common good.

BUT we also need discipleship images of empowerment and resistance to evil. Yes, there’s the servant Jesus, the one who suffered and died for us. But Jesus was a more complex man than that. He also told the storm – “Be Still!” and it was stilled! (Mk 4:39). And to the Pharisees he said, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt 23:33) Both servanthood images toward those who are vulnerable and power to oppose evil are actions of the human and divine Jesus we are called to imitate.

The mistake we make is choosing one set of images – the meek, mild servant Jesus who suffered and died for our salvation – over another set of images – the angry, powerful Jesus who confronted evil and exposed its lies. When he was on trial before the Sanhedrin, he told the High Priest – “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mt 27:64) That is hardly the image of the servant Jesus who gave up his life with no hope of reward. His confrontation of the evil systems of his day was bold and courageous, calling on the power of heaven to defeat the lies that humans create to perpetuate their abuses of others.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written a book with the title, Half the Sky: From Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide. (Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: From Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Knopf, September, 2009.) In a recent NPR interview, they repeated what I have heard from several other experts. ‘We have discovered that if we give micro-loans to men, they tend to spend their profit on tobacco, alcohol, and sex. But if we give micro-loans to women, they tend to spend their profit on improving the quality of housing, water purification, education for children, and health for the family. So we get much more value from investments with women than with men – on average.’

I have discovered a similar phenomenon in Nicaragua where I visit regularly. Whenever there is a thriving project, there are amazing women in leadership. I have interviewed women organizing workers in the Zona Franca, the free zone for maquilidoras or sweat shops. I have heard presentations by women who are educating “working street children” who are often victims of crime, sexual violence, and drug addiction, and I once visited a school for children whose parents work in the Managua city dump. All the teachers were women. Neither Kristof, WuDunn nor I are claiming that individual women and more moral than individual men, but that on average, providing resources for large groups of women is more likely to improve the whole community than providing similar resources for men. There must be historical wisdom in the resistance communities of women about what is needed for the common good and what makes for healthy and viable neighborhoods and economies.

One reason these global projects thrive is because many women leaders have a concern for others who are vulnerable – children, single parents, families without economic resources. They think first of providing adequate food, purified water, education, and health care for the community. They are willing to sacrifice some of their own needs for the common good. Another reason these projects thrive is because women change the community when they are empowered by the resources they need. A timely microloan can be the start of a successful small business that benefits the whole community. These women leaders are committed to helping those who are vulnerable AND are motivated to liberate their communities from oppression. They seek empowerment and liberation for themselves and others AND they seek to serve the common good and make sacrifices and accept suffering if necessary for their long-term goals.

Our preaching in our congregations also includes men, of course. The balance of servanthood and liberation, suffering and empowerment is also important for men; we should hear about our need for liberation from patriarchal images of power and control, and we need to hear about our shared responsibility for the vulnerable persons in our communities. Men need to hear about the whole life and death of Jesus for our salvation just as women do.

When Delia was convicted and sent to prison for first-degree murder, she had a conversation with her 11-year-old son. She said she was sorry for everything that happened and the fact that she was now going to jail. Her son said, “Don’t worry, Mom. We will make it somehow. Just remember that we are not getting beat up by Daddy.” Her decision to have her husband killed was a desperate form of empowerment after every institution in her life failed her miserably. Her son was telling her that he understood that her years when she suffered abuse, her decision to have her husband killed, and her sacrifice by going to jail were done for the good of the whole family. The message would stay with him the rest of his life- stand up to evil and care for the vulnerable.

Like Marie Fortune, I don’t condone her behavior, but I understand her life as a sacrifice for others and a prophetic witness against evil. May God help us discern the best ways to preach the whole gospel about God’s care for all the people and Jesus’ ministry of prophetic challenge and sacrifice for others. Amen.

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