Fr. Andrew Armond – The Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost, October 17, 2021
For the last several weeks, we have been walking with the disciples through Mark Chapters 8-10. In many ways, we have seen how easy it was for Jesus to disappoint his disciples and followers. He disappointed Peter by suggesting that he would suffer and die before being raised from the dead. He disappointed the disciples by telling them that whoever was not against them was for them. He disappointed the Rich Young Ruler by finding the one thing within him that was holding him back from following Jesus wholeheartedly and asking him to give it up for the sake of the Gospel. He disappointed the disciples when they asked him about this teaching later, telling them that it is impossible for us to reach the Kingdom through our own power and wealth. And now, he disappoints James and John by telling them that he cannot promise them a place of importance and prominence in God’s Kingdom.
It may be easy for some of us to fault the disciples for over and over again not getting what Jesus is trying to say to them. It’s certainly a feature of the Gospel of Mark, not a bug. Mark intends to show us the confusion and hard-heartedness of Jesus’s disciples. But Mark does so, I believe, to suggest that all of us are not getting what Jesus is trying to say to us. As I preached two weeks ago, only the children in all of these stories are the ones getting it right. What are we missing? Like the disciples, what expectations do we have of Jesus, and of our Christian faith, and how do those expectations sometimes let us down?
Can we really fault the disciples, after all? As the Methodist theologian and teacher Walter Wink points out, Jesus’s immediate followers were trapped in a way of thinking fostered first by the Greek conquerors of Palestine, and then the Romans, who had been in power for about 60 years by the time Jesus was born. And it is a way of thinking that still operates in our own culture today. It is a way of thinking, and acting, and being in the world that is all around us, and that it is quite easy for us to fall into as well. But, as Jesus was trying to tell the disciples then, and is still trying to tell us today, it is NOT the way of Jesus.
The way of the Powers of This World, according to Wink, is something he calls the Domination System. The word “domination” comes from the Latin word “Dominus,” meaning a “Master,” especially in the sense of one who owns slaves. The Latin word “Dominus” was the way the Romans translated the Greek word “Tyrannos,” from which the English words “tyrant” and “tyranny” come. Jesus clearly and definitively rejects the way that the tyrants and dominators of his age have been doing things, and he teaches the disciples to reject their ways as well.
The Domination System has many core beliefs and practices, but some of the most obvious have to do with what the world around us VALUES and how it ASSIGNS VALUE to human beings. It also has to do with POWER, mainly who HAS IT and how they WIELD it OVER others. The Domination System has at least five key beliefs:
We can and should use other people as a means to achieve our goals.
Some people are naturally dominant and therefore have a duty to dominate others, especially through systems of oppression such as slavery.
If the end is perceived as just, we can use any means necessary to achieve that end, often and especially violent means.
The only language some people understand is violence, and we always have the option to use violence to dominate others.
The size and wealth of an organization, or person, is proof of that organization or person’s value and worth.
The Domination System had already been in practice for many hundreds of years by the time Jesus was born in Palestine; and many of the conflicts the Gospels record between Jesus and those around him had to do with the conflict between what Jesus saw as the Kingdom of God and its essential and deep conflicts with the Domination System.
In Jesus’s own time, the Domination System was perfected by the Romans. The Cross itself is a perfect example of the Domination system. After all, crucifixion is actually a rather inefficient means of execution–but it is a public, painful, humiliating one that clearly communicates the values of the Domination System.
Though the Disciples are certainly not fans of the Romans, they have still absorbed the lessons of the culture around them–as do we, of course–to the extent that they still imagine that wealthy people would automatically enter the Kingdom before others. To the extent that they still imagine that in reward for their service to their teacher, Jesus, they should have a prominent place of honor and prestige. Even at Jesus’s dramatic confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane with the authorities, Peter still tries to use the Domination System by pulling his sword on the servant of the High Priest.
The most disappointing thing about Jesus was that he refused the Domination System. He talked about the Poor and the Meek and the Mourning as the ones who would inherit the Kingdom. He talked about Children and Infants being the ones who really show God’s Kingdom to us most clearly. He said, clearly and consistently, that in order to follow him, we have to renounce our own power and prestige and dominance over others.
We have to subvert and resist the Domination System, believing that people are always inherently valuable because they bear the imprint of God’s own Image, not because they serve our own selfish purposes. That those who are the weak and the oppressed and the dominated are in fact beloved children of God, not natural slaves, as even the great philosopher Aristotle taught.
That our thought life itself should be brought into submission to Christ, since our thoughts and the means by which we act in the world are just as important as our actions and their ends.
That bigger and wealthier and flashier is in fact not better, but that we often find the pearl of great price buried in a field, or that we find that the tiny and seemingly insignificant mustard seed blossoms and blooms into something far larger and more significant in the end.
I don’t think it was an accident, then, that in the first years of Christianity, those Latin-speaking Christians began using a shocking word to describe the risen and reigning Christ: DOMINUS. Christ, they claimed, is Dominus, Lord, Master of all, not Caesar, not the powers of this world. And our Dominus, our Lord, is the Lord of All Creation precisely because he rejected the powers of this world and established God’s Kingdom through forgiveness, service, and love.
I think it’s such a wonderful joke to play on all the Caesars of the Empire that the Latin Mass says “Sancte, Sancte, Sancte, Dominus Deus Sabaoth,” Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts: the God who commanded the worlds into being but who stripped off his robes in a profound act of service as he instituted The Holy Eucharist.
For what Jesus did, and what Jesus continues to do, is to transform the Domination System into the Kingdom of God. In the last verse of our Gospel for today, Jesus affirms that he has not come to buy into the Domination System, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The word ransom there literally means to buy back from slavery. From our enslavement to sin, to the powers of this world, to the Domination System, Jesus promises freedom. As our greatest Christian hymn, the Exsultet, chanted at the Easter Vigil, says: How wonderful and beyond our Knowing, O God, is your Mercy and Lovingkindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a son.
God is in the business of redemption, of buying back our weary and wandering souls.
God is in the business of setting us free from our enslavement to the Powers of the World in order that we might taste true freedom in the Kingdom of God.
God is in the business, through Jesus, of disappointing the World’s expectations of a dominating Master in order to exceed our every expectation as a servant King.