Monday, October 23, 2006

Looking Glass Ethics

Text: Mark 10.35-45
Looking Glass Ethics

In Through the Looking Glass, the author Lewis Carroll takes his character Alice on a series of adventures in “Looking Glass Land,” where you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place and where the Red King practices believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Looking glasses or mirrors are helpful for more than practicing posture and putting on make-up. They enable us to see ourselves as others see us. However, looking glass land is different from our everyday world in a fundamental way: looking glass land is our world backwards and inverted. In other words, looking glass world is not a photograph. The world we see in the looking glass appears to be our world but as we begin to explore, we find that it operates by a different set of rules.

Seeing our world reflected in the looking glass can be helpful but it can also be misleading. We’ve all had the experience of trying to tie a tie while watching ourselves in the mirror. The hand in the mirror goes in one direction and our hand goes in another, and we end up with a Gordian knot instead of a bow tie. On the other hand, the mirror can help us untangle puzzles. Scientist and artist Leonardo Da Vinci famously learned how to write backwards and his notebooks can only be deciphered when they are viewed “though the looking glass.”

The gospels hold up a mirror to our world. At first, the world we see in the gospels seems much like the world in which we live. People are born and they die; they hunger and thirst; they marry and have children. But when we look more closely we see that the looking glass land of the gospels is so very different from the world we inhabit.

For example, we celebrate the wealthy, famous, and powerful but the gospels tell us that the poor and persecuted are the special objects of God’s favor. As the Song of Mary says, “God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty way; God has brought down the mighty and has lifted up the lowly.” We live in a world that measures success by the bank accounts, houses, and cars that we possess but the gospels tell us that in God’s kingdom the only thing that matters is our capacity to love. Our world is all about getting more and climbing higher but the gospels tell us that God evaluates us by how much we give and by our willingness to serve those who occupy the world’s lowest places.

Today’s gospel reading is a perfect illustration. James and John come to Jesus and say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." They made the mistake that everyone makes when they look at the world through the looking glass; they assumed that it was exactly the same as the world in which they lived. They assumed that greatness would be rewarded with power and prestige. They didn’t realize that in looking glass world (that is, the kingdom of God) that which is high in this world becomes low; that which is valuable in this world is worthless on the other side of the looking glass.

Wherever Jesus’ followers have successfully practiced his “looking glass ethics,” they have mystified the world and the world has predictably responded with hostility. The Romans did not know what to make of the early Christians. The Romans valued honor above everything else. “Love of honor” or philotimia above everything else. They defined honor much like we define honor. Military victory was honorable (provided the fight was fair) and defeat was dishonorable or shameful. Athletic prowess was honorable. Holding high political office or coming from a good family were also honorable. The Christian faith inverted Rome’s values, because at the heart of Christianity is the story of Jesus who voluntarily submitted to die the most dishonorable death imaginable in the Roman world – death on a cross. Not only did Jesus die on the cross, he went to his death without any resistance. In the Roman mind, Jesus died a shameful death in a shameful way, that is, without putting up a good fight.

James and John assumed that the values of this world operate on the other side of the looking glass in the kingdom of God, but Jesus quickly corrected them. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

It ran contrary to common sense in the first century and runs contrary to common sense in the twenty first century. The headlines of our newspapers and lead stories on the news celebrate presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and senators.

The Christian has the difficult task of practicing looking glass ethics on the wrong side of the mirror. The best illustration I can give is to tell a story by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Imagine, he said, a thief who breaks into a jewelry store, but strangely he doesn’t steal anything. Rather, he rearranges the price tags so that what had been valuable becomes cheap and what had been cheap becomes valuable.

Sisters and brothers, our task is to value the things Jesus values and to love those whom Jesus loves; to seek the place of service rather than the place self-aggrandizement, to fill the hungry with good things and to love the poor, the hungry, the homeless. And to remember that what seems high on this side of the looking glass is low on the other side and what seems cheap here is of infinite value in Jesus’ upside down kingdom. Our mission is to be subversive: to put the price tags back where they belong .