Women Show the Way to Fullness of Life (Not to Heaven)

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 53:10-11; Ps. 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb. 4: 14-16; Mk. 10:35-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102112.cfm

Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, talks about his list of the “Ten Worst Contributions of Religion to Human Culture.” Topping that list, he says, is popular Christianity’s belief in the afterlife. When asked about the other nine, Borg says he can’t remember what they are. . . .

Second on my own list (perhaps even first) would be the idea that God has designated men to be rulers of the world and church, while women are to be seen and not heard. Today’s liturgy of the word addresses both of those items in Religion’s Worst Ideas.

Take that first one about heaven and hell. Borg sees belief in the afterlife is so harmful because it has led to a law and rule-based Christianity that centers on “going to heaven” as a reward for “keeping the commandments.” Such quid pro quo thinking, he says, is a complete distortion of Christianity.

Borg reminds us that the afterlife is not at all the focus of Christian belief – nor of Jewish “Old Testament” faith for that matter. In fact, ideas about life after death didn’t surface in Judaism till well after the Babylonian Exile six centuries before the birth of Jesus – probably as a result of contact with the Persians.  And the first unambiguous biblical reference to meaningful survival of the individual after death comes only in the book of Daniel which was written about 150 years before the birth of Jesus. That means that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and none of the prophets were motivated by desire for heaven or escape from hell. Those ideas were simply not part of their mental landscapes.

Instead, for those tribal people, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about land – the Land of Canaan which was celebrated as God’s gift to his favored People. The word “salvation” then meant a Palestine free from occupation by imperialists, be they Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings and their references to “long life,” “fullness of days,” and “greatness” for the “Suffering Servant” who is “crushed” and loses his life on behalf of others. The words are reminiscent of Jesus’ pronouncement that sacrificing one’s life was the way to save it. Conversely, trying to “save one’s life” was the sure way to lose it.

Those are mysterious words. What might they mean: by giving one’s life for others, one actually achieves long life and fullness of days? How can one have long life and fullness of days when he or she is dead? (You can see how that question would lead subsequent generations of Christians to adopt the “afterlife” hopes of Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian cultures to answer that question.)

Given Jesus’ centralization of God’s Kingdom, the answer of Jesus (and that of Second Isaiah) seems to have been that self-sacrificial non-violent resistance to all forms of imperial domination provides such a powerful example and inspiring force that the community rises with new energy, life, and fullness of life when the suffering servant is inevitably killed by imperial forces.

For Mark’s community, that had proven true in the case of Jesus; its members experienced Jesus’ presence more intensely and more meaningfully following his execution than before. For us, we can see the same truth illustrated in the cases of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Rachel Corrie and Karen Silkwood. After their deaths, and arguably because of their deaths, they exercise more influence on us today than they did while they were alive. That’s the mystery Jesus gestures towards in today’s reading.

What can this mean for us? For one, it calls us to recommit ourselves to non-violent resistance of the anti-kingdom forces among us. That’s our political task as we live out our lives in the belly of empire’s beast here in the United States.

But Jesus’ words about servanthood show us that such resistance should permeate our lives at the domestic every-day level as well. (And here’s where the point about women comes in.)  In both cases, the political and domestic, the kingdom is not brought on by exercising the kind of “power over” that characterizes empire, and that apparently motivates the request of the Sons of Zebedee in this morning’s Gospel. The Zebedee boys have a typically patriarchal approach; they’re asking Jesus to let them exercise “power over” others.  This typically male idea sees force and violence as the solution to most problems.

Instead, the approach of “servanthood”—of putting the needs of others first – is typically feminine. And in Mark’s Gospel from beginning to the end it is women who are referred to in servant language. In the beginning of Mark (1:31), the first act of Peter’s mother in law upon being cured by Jesus is to serve food to her benefactor and his companion. And at the end Mark (15:41) Mary Magdalene along with another Mary and Salome are identified beneath Jesus’ cross as “those who used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee.”

All of that suggests, as scripture scholar Ched Myers has said, that Jesus here is proposing the notion of “servant leadership.” It suggests that the practical content of that concept is typically embodied not in men, but in women.

In fact, I think, it suggests that in a patriarchal system like ours (politically, domestically, and in the church) the only ones fit to exercise leadership are women. Typically, they are the ones who shed light on the meaning of “servant-leader” and of fullness of life. And they do so in ways that those bad ideas of heaven and “power-over” simply cannot.   What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “Women Show the Way to Fullness of Life (Not to Heaven)”

  1. Thank you for your (as always) useful and clear elucidation.

    In the 12-step programs, “leaders are but servants.” And in non-programmed Quaker Meetings, Clerks are but servants (and in fact are not permitted to suggest minuted actions, unless she or he steps down to do so, and remains down for the period of discussion). In both cases, power resides in the coming together of community. Seeing both as living models of Christian leadership is, for me, an entirely new perspective. Thanks!


    1. As per Hank’s remark, I think that the move away from a dominator leadership, implied in the sons of Zebedee pericope, is toward a partnership model. I am thinking of Raine Eisler. To change patriarchy to matriarchy is still within the dominator model. Both men and women have been living in the dominator model for so long and making accommodations to it that to just give the leadership role to women because they are women does not move us enough toward what needs to be done, imho. Both men and women, as humans heed to partner to create a new model that resolves the duality of men vs. women.


      1. Well said, John. Women just like us men have been inculturated into that dominator model. Somehow though, it seems they have an easier time breaking free from it. I don’t know. It’s a question of levels of awareness in the various lines Wilber writes about.


  2. Very Interesting
    “That’s our political task as we live out our lives in the belly of empire’s beast here in the United States.”

    It is encouraging to know that not just Dublin cab-drivers – and the rest of the non-USA world – think that way about the once great nation of hope!
    Glad democracynow.org is becoming popular. Frank Carroll SSC intrroduced me to it about 10 years ago. May I also recommend the following:

    I feel that most of the great prophets of the Pentateuch when referring to any promised land, be it Paradise or Israel were referring to a sate of union (or reunion) with the creator. The state of not yet being united was/is the state of “hell.” Which makes much more sense to me than the “fear the lord and remember me in your will” attitude.

    I look forward to the blogs and read them all since Larry O’T suggested it to me….and more on the Historical Jesus.
    It would be great if the blog was copied to the formercolumbans@yahoogroups.com which Peter Wilkinson set-up. Most of us old folks need good stuff like this to keep the brain ticking and stimulated…and enlightened.
    It is so easy to delete what does not suit us.
    Jim C.


    1. Thanks for the encouragement and references, Jim. I read OpEdNews every day along with Information Clearing House and Alternet. I’ll check out those other sites. The Chomsky one especially interests me. And thank you for the suggestion about the Columban mailing list. That would be a good way for me to reconnect with some of my friends and classmates. We haven’t had a reunion in a couple of years. — Mike


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