Whose Interests Am I Serving?
Click here to view the full sermon video for September 19th entitled, "Whose Interests Am I Serving?"
For twenty-five years I have taught ethics in various colleges and universities. Philosophical ethics. Business ethics. Professional ethics. Christian ethics-both the Protestant and Catholic versions. In all these classes I always include Ayn Rand and John Stuart Mill, two major figures in the world of ethics. More on Mill later.
Ayn Rand grew up in a middle class home in St. Petersburg until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 upended her world. In the early days of the Soviet Union, life was hard under a Communist dictatorship. She saw the worst of collectivism and the repression of the individual and the Gulag Archipelago. In 1926 she left for the United States, never to return to her homeland. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged made her famous. Their depictions of the self-made businessman struck a chord in the nation’s psyche.
Rand’s ethical views were outlined in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, which I always have my students read. For Rand, it is simply immoral to be altruistic, to think more of others than oneself. You are a self-made person and thus obligated to pursue your own self-interest. In one essay entitled “The Ethics of Emergencies” she blasts the notion that we should risk our own lives to help others in a burning building. I thought of that essay on 9/11. Following her death in 1982 Rand has remained the darling of those who believe that my own self-interest trumps any other ethical concern. Outside my own orbit Rand argues we have no obligation whatsoever.
Reading our text from Mark’s Gospel, one gets the impression that the disciples of Jesus are channeling Ayn Rand. This rag tag band of fishermen, laborers, tax collectors and would be revolutionaries seem to have only one thing in common-their own self-interest. In other words, they behave like most of us, looking out for number one. Mark paints a rather stark picture of their behavior, so much so that later Evangelists try to smooth over their rough edges.
But not Mark. This Evangelist, probably the first, tells us the disciples were who they were-awestruck by Jesus, his miraculous powers, his persona. But they seem utterly clueless about the true meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus leads his disciples to believe that one day they will sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel-a rather exalted position indeed. Perhaps their constant jostling for privilege was their imagining themselves as chief advisors to the King. In other words, they had rubbed shoulders with Jesus, but Jesus’ authentic message had not rubbed off of them.
Jesus repeatedly reminded his closest followers of the dark days ahead, the suffering and rejection he would endure. In chapter 8 in Caesarea Philippi he reveals that suffering and death lay before him. But Peter refuses to believe that the coming Kingdom would suffer such a fate. In chapter 9 in Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee Jesus again speaks words of foreboding. But the disciples are reduced to silence when Jesus challenges their absurd argument as to who is the greatest. In chapter 10 on the way to Jerusalem Jesus points to his Passion looming before him. Nevertheless, James and John request to sit on his right and his left when he comes in his Kingdom. Interestingly, Luke puts this request at the Last Supper, just hours before Jesus’ execution. Jesus is pouring out his heart about the cross before him, while his disciples are seeking the best seat in the house!
Together the disciples’ behavior demonstrates a kind of shameless self-interest. All the while Jesus is trying to explain what is on the horizon-rejection, suffering, and death. Clearly, the disciples are clueless and mindless and self-interested. And it appears that the Big Three-Peter, James, and John-were the worst offenders, imagining themselves the Secretary of State, Defense, and Treasury in the coming Kingdom. Now if you have ever despaired of the state of the church, just remember what Jesus had to work with! And what he still has to work with!
And what does Jesus do in response to these all too human followers, with their feet of clay and their hearts curved in upon themselves? I am sure on some days he wanted to trade them in for a new model of humanity. But then again, where do you find folks who have moved beyond their own self-interests? They were who they were and Jesus sought to challenge them and to change them. So to Peter, he says, “Get behind me, Satan.” A clear reference to the Temptation story which Peter unwittingly replicates. So to all the disciples arguing about who is the greatest, he takes a child and encourages them to become child-like, indeed, to become a servant of all. And finally James and John, whose request sparked a fire storm among the other disciples, Jesus reminds all his disciples that they are not to act like the Gentiles who lord it over others. They are to become servants of one another, even as Jesus himself came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
Now fortunately, there is more to this story. In fact, it is a rather amazing story of how a rag tag band of fishermen, laborers, tax collectors and would be revolutionaries were changed, indeed, transformed. But that’s another story, a resurrection story for another day. But it is truly a miraculous story, which Paul will later call “a new creation.”
This morning I ask you to consider what it means to move beyond one’s own self-interest into Jesus’ vision of servanthood? A new world where the interests of others matter to you…a lot! In fact, as much as your own self-interest. Like meaning it when we say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or when we say, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Those two bedrock convictions, the Golden Rule and the Second Great Commandment, acknowledge that we are in fact all self-interested. As you would have them do to you! As you love yourself! This acknowledgement is not so much an indictment as an honest depiction of who we are. It is intensely challenging to expand my horizons beyond my own little raft called the “Me, Myself, and I.” Only a transformation, a miracle, a new creation moves me to care about you as much and as intensely as I care about myself.
Which brings me finally to John Stuart Mill, a Nineteenth Century British philosopher. In 1859 Mill published one of the most famous essays of all time entitled “On Liberty.” That essay is read more widely in American universities than almost any other essay. Mill was troubled by people exercising their freedom in self-interested ways, like Ayn Rand insists that we should. Now Mill was in favor of as much freedom as possible within a society. In fact, if you wanted to exercise your freedom to harm yourself, well, society should not stop you, under most circumstances. A big exception to that would involve children or people with mental disabilities. But in most cases, people should be allowed freedom even to the point of harming themselves.
But here is where Mill drew the line. Mill insisted, however, they are not free to harm others. When you yell “fire” in a crowded theater, you have taken your freedom of speech beyond its limits and you have caused harm to others, especially if folks are trampled in the exits. Mill points to the fact that your own self-interest is always in tension with the self-interest of others. When yours hurts others, you have gone too far. That is called the “harm principle.”
In our time, self-interested individuals are free to say no to vaccines and masks. But they are not free to endanger others or put others at risk by their behavior. The moment their freedom turns into harm of the neighbor, then we have quite simply a violation, a serious violation of the Golden Rule and the Second Great Commandment. Likewise, when all I care about is my position of prestige in the coming Kingdom of God, I have missed something essential about Jesus’ teachings. When all I care about is the exercise of my freedom, my assertion of my rights, I have deeply misunderstood my liberty. My liberty is mine to exercise up into the point where it impacts others negatively. Then it needs to be challenged. Much like Jesus did with his disciples.
Sisters and brother, the on-going challenge of the human condition is this: can we move beyond our little raft the “Me, Myself, and I” and care for my sisters and brothers as much as I care for myself? It is here that Jesus enters our world and offers us the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thanks be to God. Amen.