Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 20:20-28
Our text today opens with “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” coming before Jesus to ask for positions of power on behalf of her sons, James and John. Tellingly, the verb “kneeling before” (proskuneó) is the same action which Satan asks Jesus to take in order to gain “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour” (Mt 4:8-9). It is a request which sees power in terms of domination and seeks to dominate others.
When Jesus speaks to the disciples, he confronts this way of domination. Palestine in Jesus’ day was ruled directly by local leaders—in Galilee Herod Antipas, who was (partly) Jewish, and in Jerusalem the temple elite, under the control of the Roman governor Pilate. Other nations subjugated by Rome also had local indigenous leaders who were, as in Palestine, puppets of Rome. They are the “rulers of the nations” Jesus refers to. Over them, of course, was Roman power—“great ones who exercise authority”—which both maintained the privilege of local leadership and kept it in check. The Roman empire, then, was ruled by local leaders seeking their own political gain, and Roman power which kept the system in place. It was a system of hierarchy and domination.
Power in God’s reign, however, is to be exercised differently to this. That is, God’s reign not only has a different ruler, but a different way of ruling. In God’s reign, power is to be exercised not through dominating others and seeking to climb higher up the chain, but through identifying with servants and slaves—those who were “subservient, dependent on their master, owned, lacking any self-determination, at the mercy of their owner, expected to obey, powerless, with few legal rights, beaten, alienated from any legitimated social existence, without honor, despised by the elite”,1 in short, those who were on the underside of power.
Jesus’ call for his disciples to identify with servants and slaves concludes with the example of his own life and ministry: “…just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The image of ransom which Jesus evokes has often led theologians to ponder to whom the ransom is to be paid. But this is not the burden of the saying. The ransom motif comes from Isaiah chapter 40-55, where it is used to speak of Israel’s liberation from exile:
So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:11)
Jesus is speaking of the liberation of the people from oppressive power, just as the exiles under Babylon longed for liberation from foreign domination. The point is not payment, but liberation.2 And the catalyst for this liberation will be Jesus’ death and resurrection, as he has told the disciples in verse 19.
Just how, then, can Jesus’ death and resurrection act like a “ransom”—a catalyst for liberation? Firstly, “[h]is death reveals the nature and impact of imperial and religious power… His death demonstrates their abusive use of power in protecting their own interests.”3 Secondly, “[h]is resurrection demonstrates that God’s empire is not confined by imperial and religious power, violence, sin and death. Their power is limited; it is not ultimate.”4 And thirdly, Jesus’ death and resurrection enable the communities of Jesus-followers to live with a transformed perception. “That perception”, says Carter,
informs and forms the community of Jesus’ followers. It lives not wanting to imitate such power (20:26). It lives knowing there is an alternative use of power that is life-giving and that seeks the good of the other… And it lives knowing that the alternative is possible because imperial power has been shown not to have the final word.5
For Matthew’s community, this was a promise that as they lived out God’s way, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, they would know such liberation and nothing that the powers could throw at them would be able to take it away. As the apostle Paul had written earlier, it would be a life of working out salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And it would be a truth continually demonstrated in the lives of Jesus’ followers throughout history.
- Imagine you are part of Matthew’s community reading today’s passage. What challenges might it bring?
- What do you think it might mean for you to identify with “servants” and “slaves”?
- In what ways are you challenged by today’s reading?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2000), 404.
2. This point is made explicit in Isaiah 52:3: “For thus says the Lord: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.”
3. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 406.
4. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 406.
5. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 406.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 20:29-34
Jesus here encounters two blind men, sitting by the roadside on the road leading out of Jericho. They address Jesus with the words, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David.” Like the earlier blind men (9:27) and the Canaanite woman (15:22), these blind men are said to be enemies of David (2 Samuel 5:8). And like the Canaanite woman, others dismiss their claims and try to silence them. Jesus, however, won’t be drawn into their closed-heartedness toward the men—even those scripted as enemies. His heart remains open and compassionate.
- Can you think of vulnerable people who are scripted by popular culture as “enemies”?
- Reflect for a moment on the story. In what ways are you challenged to act this week?
Pray for one another.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Advent reading: Isaiah 61:1-11
Read: Isaiah 61:1-11 as a Lectio Devina
1) Have one person read the verses through twice.
2) Speak out any words or phrases that stand out to you.
3) Read through the verses again.
4) What thoughts, feelings, and impressions do you sense? Share them.
5) Read the verses a final time.
6) What challenges or encouragements emerge? Share them with the group.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
Advent reading: Luke 1:46-55
Today’s reflection comes from Stephen Barrington:
It is so easy in the Christmas season to get caught up with the sanitized, domesticated and safe Jesus. We see this today in the form of Christmas carols, manger scenes, farm animals, cute babies, the pull to be consumers and to spend up. It is all around us. It makes us feel comfortable, for the safe baby demands very little of us.
But even before Jesus was born, we see that God was about challenging this order, and calling us to his kingdom, which was, and is, in complete contrast to the Empire and powers of the day.
We see this displayed in today’s reading. The Magnificat, or Mary’s Protest Song are the longest recorded words spoken by a woman in the whole of the New Testament and is Mary’s announcement about the subversive nature of Jesus kingdom and ministry to come. It is inspired by God and comes out of the mouth of a pregnant unwed teenage mother to be, uncertain about her own future on the edge of the powerful Roman Empire.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized the subversive nature of Mary’s song. Before being executed by the Nazis, he spoke these words in a sermon during Advent on December 17, 1933:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols”.
In it she declares:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones and raised up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing” (Luke 1:51-53).
For those on the margins, for those who struggle, for those who have been exploited, for the abused and abandoned, for asylum seekers facing an uncertain future at the hands of an inhospitable government, this is good news. This is unexpected beauty. This is the great reversal. Yet for those in power, those who exploit others, there is a different story.
These words are so provocative, that over the past century at least 3 countries have banned the public recitation of them. These governments have considered the song’s message to be too dangerous to the powerful of the day. They include:
- During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited because of its inflammable words. So, on the final day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.
- During the 1980s, the government of Guatemala found the ideas raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.
- The dictatorship in Argentina banned Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza.
It is good news to those on the outer, and bad news to those in power and privilege. It calls us to live a different way, to change allegiances and to be a part of Gods Kingdom. Sister Elizabeth Johnson sums it up well,
“The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted. People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims”.
The invitation today is, like Mary and later on through Jesus, to see this unexpected beauty in the lives of those on the margins, for it is there that we truly experience the hope of the God who came down to earth, put on skin and lived as one of us. For we are again reminded that Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. A-men.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer