Grace Presbyterian Church
October 17, 2021, Pentecost 21B
Still Don’t Get It
I am old enough to remember The Andy Griffith Show, not in first-run but in the daily-rerun pattern of syndication. When you see a show that often, you learn certain patterns of the show. One of the more obvious patterns was that Barney Fife, the seemingly hapless deputy, would inevitably bungle something and Sheriff Andy would pick up after him. Another was that Barney would get far too agitated and want to do something rash or extreme, and Andy would have to reign him in. These two patterns, often in combination, constituted one of the show’s regular tropes.
I’m guessing that I’m not the first to wonder if Jesus’s disciples, at least as portrayed throughout the gospel of Mark, have a bit of Barney Fife in them. And yes, that would put Jesus in the role of Sheriff Andy, having to clean up after them (as in chapter 9, when the disciples can’t manage a healing without Jesus around) or rebuke them for their rashness (as in earlier in chapter 10, when the disciples were turning away those who were bringing children to Jesus). Perhaps the most prominent examples of this dynamic in Mark’s gospel are Jesus’s three proclamations of his coming suffering and death, and the inept response of the disciples in each case – such as Peter’s rebuke that in turn got him rebuked with “Get behind me, Satan!” in chapter 8, and then the chapter 9 argument among the disciples over which of them was greatest. Today’s reading seems to offer an echo of that second incident.
The verses immediately preceding today’s reading make up the third of those disturbing proclamations by Jesus. John, who got all hot and bothered about a man casting out demons in Jesus’s name after the previous event, drags his brother James into the mess this time. They come to Jesus with the schoolyard-taunt request to be appointed to sit at Jesus’s right and left “in your glory.” You can imagine that if Jesus had acceded to their request, they would have immediately gotten into a fight over which one got to sit on the right or the left. When this tiff comes to the attention of the rest of the disciples, more dissention breaks out. Deputy Fife has messed up again, and Sheriff Andy has to clean up after him.
In short, the disciples still don’t get it.
One of the other features of that Barney/Andy pattern on the show was that no matter how badly Barney messed up, Andy never did give up on him. Andy never fired Barney (at least not for good) or ran him off in some way. Andy kept him on, kept putting him back to work.
So it is, as we see, with Jesus and these dunderheaded disciples. No matter how badly they messed up or got crosswise with what he was teaching them, Jesus never did cut them loose. He continued to teach them, continued to lead them, and continued to love them.
To understand the final portion of this reading is to understand – or perhaps to begin to understand – why that is. It is a deeply important statement from Jesus about his very reason for existing, his very purpose on this earth. And as with many such statements, we often interpret it poorly.
Jesus begins by drawing a contrast between the community of Jesus’s followers and the world around them, or what such a contrast should look like. Out there in the world the powerful lord it over the powerless, but that’s not how it works here. You want to be the greatest? Be the servant of all. You want to be first? Be the least of all. That’s why I’m here.
Verse 45 then supplies the critical understanding, in two parts. It’s not that hard to grasp “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” We’ve seen Jesus use that term for himself in Mark’s gospel, and the reversal of “not to be served but to serve” is clear enough, if rather unsettling to we who have lived in the world of social-climbing and career ladders all our lives.
It’s the concluding phrase where we tend to get off track, and our misunderstanding tends to hinge on two words that jump out particularly strongly in this phrase. I know I’m not supposed to get heavily into the business of translating Greek in these sermons, but we need to get the words right here. In the spirit of Jesus’s argument here, we’ll take the last word first.
The Greek word λυτρον (Lutron) is translated here as “ransom,” and that would be a typical translation in most contexts. However, our modern concept of that word is narrower than the Greek meaning. Our minds most quickly associate “ransom” with a kidnapping or hostage-taking situation, in which some amount of money is demanded for the release of those held captive. This causes many to interpret this phrase “gave his life a ransom for many” as some kind of transactional ransoming; the forces of evil get to kill Jesus so we can go free.
That’s not how the Greek usage of “ransom” works, though. That Greek word λυτρον doesn’t involve a transaction; there’s no payee. Instead, the “ransom” involved here (going back to the Greek verb λυω ‘luo,’ the root word from which λυτρον comes) carries the image of removing a hindrance or obstacle, or perhaps of loosening bonds or releasing one held captive. It’s not about our modern image of paying ransom; a closer modern metaphor might be one in which Jesus breaks us out of prison. Being ransomed is being set free. Being ransomed is being delivered from that which oppresses or destroys us. It’s not a prisoner exchange; it’s a total jailbreak.
The other word that often messes us up, tied into the whole modernized “ransom” idea, is ψύχην (psuxen), here translated as “life.” In this context Christian thinkers have long tended to use the rather shallow definition of ψυχην as basically what makes us not dead, whatever biophysical condition would tell a doctor that we are in fact living. Therefore, in this way of thinking, to say that Jesus “gave his life” has to be about the part where Jesus died, the part Jesus has been foretelling to his disciples three times now.
But that’s not all there is to ψυχην. It also carries the meaning of “life” as “that which is integral to being a person beyond mere physical function.” We might think of this as our inner self, or even what we call our soul. It’s the difference between “being alive” and living, one might say.
And understanding this as what Jesus gave hopefully opens our eyes to what is really going on in this passage, and why Jesus keeps cutting the disciples so much slack.
Jesus gave his life. Jesus gave his whole inner being, his very soul, everything that he said and did and felt and thought and lived for the ransom – the setting free, the breaking out, the releasing – of many, of us, of all of us here. We are cut loose from the chains that bind us by everything Jesus said and did.
And when Jesus is giving his life, his whole life, his whole being for our redeeming and liberation, Jesus is going to hang in there with those dunderheaded disciples in ways far beyond anything Sheriff Andy had to do for Deputy Fife.
Yes, the suffering and death are part of that whole life. If anything, Jesus’s suffering and death were the inevitable result of a life so completely devoted and committed to our redemption and liberation. You can’t go upsetting the tyrannical order of things, “the way the world works,” without coming to the kind of end that Jesus did. And Jesus faced it head-on, embraced it even, as part of coming to serve and giving his whole being to liberate us all. Then of course there’s that resurrection part as well. But if you’re looking for scripture to justify some doctrine of substitutionary atonement, this isn’t it. Not at all.
A Jesus who gave everything that he was for our redeeming is not going to give up on us because we bungle it once or twice or a few times or several dozen times. A Jesus who came to serve with his whole life, every minute of his very being, and to teach us so to serve, isn’t going to bail out on us no matter how backward we get it. We aren’t abandoned, we aren’t given up on, no matter how much we still don’t get it. And that, friends, is our hope.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #299, Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim; #—, O Christ, What Can It Mean for Us; #203, Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love