Saturday, October 27, 2012

Downward Mobility

Downward Mobility
Mk. 10:35-45[1]
Most of us were raised on some form of the American Dream: if you work hard enough, your children will be able to have it better than you did.  These days, it seems that we are beginning to see the limits of that dream for middle-class people like you and me.  For the first time in a long time we are beginning to reckon with the reality that our children may have it worse than we did.  They may have more difficulty finding good-paying jobs.  They may not be able to afford to buy a home.  They simply may not be able to make the kind of income it takes to sustain the lifestyle we had.  For the first time in about four or five generations, we are facing the reality of downward mobility.
I think the general reaction to this is one of disbelief.  We simply cannot accept that something has gone so wrong with our society that what was once our greatest strength—the ability of anybody to work hard and pull themselves up—is no longer valid for most of us.  We are going the way of societies where the “have’s” continue to have more and the “have-not’s” continue to lose ground.  It is becoming more and more difficult for those of us in the middle class to sustain our way of life.[2]  If you doubt that, just ask anyone who’s trying to send their kids to college!
I think this is another matter of justice—it goes along with the other issues we’ve been dealing with.  When any society moves in the direction of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, you can expect that injustice will prevail.  Economists who study world-wide trends even have a way to measure the relative distribution of wealth—it’s called the Gini Coefficient.[3]  While it’s not fool-proof, it makes sense that when most of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, you can expect to see a disparity in opportunity and quality of life.  In a word, injustice.   We’re used to talking about these matters in relation to so-called “Third World” countries.  It would seem that the chickens have come home to roost! Now we’re facing this problem right here.
As with the other issues of justice we’ve discussed, I don’t think it’s too bold to say that in this matter as well we are reaping what we’ve been sowing.  The growing disparity between rich and poor in our society is a direct result of what we are doing.  And what we are doing is ignoring what the Scriptures consistently teach us is the way to life.  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that the Gentile rulers were used to “lording it over” others.[4]  That sounds like it doesn’t just apply to ancient times; in fact it sounds fairly contemporary to me.  In Jesus’ context, it was the aristocratic land barons who made the rules, and of course they made the rules to benefit themselves.  These days it seems to be the corporate barons and their political cronies who are guilty of that kind of blatant self-interest.
But Jesus said that approach won’t work.  He said that the way it should be is for the “greatest” to be servants of all, and for the “first” to be the slaves of all.  While he was talking about the Christian community, I don’t think he was just talking about church here.  I think he was also talking about what it means to thrive in human society.  When the “great” among us only seek to benefit and further enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us, it leads to the disintegration of society.   Something like what we see going on around us.  It fuels a growing dissatisfaction with what the rest of us have.  When we all live begin to like that, feeling discontented with what we have and thinking the only way for us to be happy is to get a bigger slice of the pie, it becomes a recipe for hostility and frustration and anger toward those around us.  In a word, the disintegration of our society.
But Jesus said that the way to life is found elsewhere.  It’s found by giving ourselves away as he did: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  When the “great” sacrifice themselves for the sake of all, then we see society as a whole begin to thrive.  Then we see real justice, peace, and harmony in our world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but as John Lennon put it, I’m not the only one.[5]  Most of my favorite theologians and spiritual writers have the same dream.  It is a dream of a world in which we all follow Jesus’ example of self-giving instead of constantly wanting more and more. 
We used to believe in that.  In fact, we had a saying for it: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”[6]  We knew that meant that the more you had, the more advantages you could count, the more you were expected to serve.  The more opportunities you were handed, the more you were expected to give yourself away for the benefit of others.  Throughout our history there have been those “great” ones who gave up their privilege and position for the sake of others.  That seems have gone by the wayside these days.  But maybe it’s time we try to recover the kind of “downward mobility” Jesus was talking about.  He calls us all to take up our crosses and follow him![7]  He calls us to a way of life that seeks not to take but to give, that seeks not to be served but to serve.  It’s a way of life that leads to life.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/21/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in his book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?, discusses why more of the middle class is not indignant with rich politicians who continue to favor the very rich with their policies.
[3] See “Gini Coefficient,” Wikipedia, accessed at  For an analysis of this, see “Unbottled Gini: Does it Matter, and If So, Why?” The Economist 20 Jan 2011; accessed at
[4] Cf. David Seeley, “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45,” Novum Testamentum 35:3 (1993):234-250, argues that there was in fact a tradition of rulers serving the people in the Greco-Roman world.
[5] Cf. John Lennon, “Imagine,” Apple Records, 11 Oct 1971.
[6] It originates with Jesus, cf. Lk. 12:48.  John F. Kennedy was famous for quoting (and misquoting) this verse.  See Mark Liberman, “The Tangled History of a Mangled Maxim,”  Kennedy did come close a speech in 1961: “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  See John F. Kennedy, “Address of President-Elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Jan 9, 1961; accessed at .
[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 101, calls it, “the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless.”  Cf. also Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 195.  Cf. also Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:654: “The self-denial associated with the cross does not always mean martyrdom, even in Mark.  Another form of self-denial has been emphasized throughout these chapters: denying the human demand for honor, power, and status.”

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