One of the strongest forces in the living world is that of fight or flight, when a living organism faces unfavourable circumstances. It is an instinct which underpins all human behaviour. We are programmed to survive. Inevitably that means that our behaviour is partly and sometimes wholly determined by our own needs. Evolutionary biology is full of examples of the survival of the fittest, and that includes all of us. At one level human history can be described as an account of how the fittest have survived. Human history has been shaped by the ways in which biological instincts have been accommodated or attenuated in order that we may live as in communities for mutual benefit. Human history is about the delicate and complex balances between individual and community needs. Today’s western culture is increasingly one of meeting the needs of the individual at the expense of the needs of our community or of our neighbour. It is increasingly about “me first”. And thus we see increasing polarisation between rich and poor, between winners and losers, between strong and weak. Wealth, competitiveness, power and beauty are constantly being put before us as the most desirable human qualities.
A week ago the Roman Catholic Church took the remarkable and highly publicised step of making Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, asaint. As Anglicans we too commemorate this remarkable man who was murdered while celebrating the Eucharist on 24 March 1980, following a time when he exposed the tyrannies of the country’s regime, especially towards the poor. Less well known is the fact that ten years before his death he was a prominent critic of the developing biblical study, theology, and subsequent practical action of many priests in Central and South America whose interpretation of Biblical texts led to the movement called liberation theology. This movement challenged corrupt politicians and stressed that the community should take particular and preferential steps to improve the lives of the many poor people in these countries. As a conservative auxiliary bishop, and friend of many of the leading members of his country in the early 1970s Oscar Romero decried the whole movement and the politicisation of many of his priests, and was known as a “little inquisitor”. He was then made a bishop of a rural diocese and he began to see the realities of harsh working conditions, harsh winters, and the widespread abuse of agricultural workers by landowners who treated them like animals. The reality of the poverty struck him as never before. But he remained suspicious of the expanding lay communities which taught biblical studies and church life, as well as politics, economics and history. Then five farmworkers who were leaders of one of the communities were savagely murdered. His heart was broken, but he still avoided a public stand against the President, for fear of scandal, and loss of personal status.
Two years later a Jesuit priest was murdered, with two leaders of base communities. Then Oscar Romero’s heart and mind changed permanently. He boycotted the inauguration of the new president for which his fellow bishops severely criticised him. He had finally accepted that the church had colluded with an unjust state and the wealthy. For him the weakest in society became the guide to his ministry. While some thought he should negotiate a middle way between the oppressive military and Marxist guerrillas, this was not for him. Instead he committed himself, and many in his church, to justice and reconciliationfor the poor, coupled with wisdom, and compassion. Thus as a bishop Oscar Romero went on the costly road from being among the first in the hierarchy of church and state in El Salvador to being among the poorest, the last and the least.
Today’s gospel passage is also about the first becoming last. The appeal by James and John reveals the instinctive human desire of wanting to be first, to be a cut above other people, as I mentioned at the beginning. Jesus’ response to their request for a place of honour is to question their understanding. But their eyes are myopic because of selfishness. They cannot see the wider implications of God’s kingdom of love and forgiveness. Nor can they see the cost of discipleship. Using Biblical images of baptism and eucharist, Jesus points to suffering as his destiny, and that of the disciples if they are his true followers. And Jesus goes on to say that giving honours is for God alone. He is merely God’s agent and has no role in any heavenly honours system.
Like Oscar Romero, Jesus pushes aside all hints of quasi political ambitions. Instead he makes it clear that the kingdom of God is utterly counter-cultural: it is not about seeking power or wielding authority. His way of life of serving, his character and his destiny indicates the way of the new life and society in God’s kingdom. He makes it clear that this is what he expects of his disciples. Mark also makes it clear that Jesus’ key expressions about acts of serving and of giving his life for many aresaid in the context of his imminent passion.
It is remarkable that after this incident, both James and John lived and died in the service of others. Through the work of the Holy Spirit their attitude of “me first” changed into an attitude of “others first”, leading to James’ martyrdom while the tradition is that John founded a lively Christian community.
The vision of a church which puts the first last and the last first has always held a strong appeal among Christians. However, such way of life without the exercise of power, or preference, or any kind of honours, has yet to be realised within the church, or esewhere. Nevertheless, the fact that we continue to be regularly confronted with Mark’s account is very important as a reminder to us. At least in our personal lives we are called to keep under honest review the balance between leading lives which are “me first” or “others first”. And as we do this may we be attentive to where the Holy Spirit is drawing us. Amen.