There is a university department that studies emotions, and one of the ideas that it has generated is that emotions change. Not just that we feel different things at different moments in our lives – as I am sure we all experience – but that emotions change over time and according to place. One example is that there is an old Japanese word for the pleasure experienced when handing over responsibility for life decisions to someone else. In our society, where we are schooled that we are individuals who must direct our own lives and make our own decisions, such a handover of responsibility would usually be seen as a cause for a kind of sorrow.
The thought that emotions not only have different labels in different societies but are subjectively different from person to person goes against one of the assumptions of our times, which we have all soaked in to an extent – namely, that human beings are always the same, everywhere.
A crude version of this is that, apart from very minor variations, we are the same beings that evolved in the savannah in Africa four million years ago, so everything human can be reduced to the evolved needs of Australopithecus. A few decades ago, this belief was used as a justification by various thinkers – all men coincidentally – for aggressive male behaviour. The writer Elaine Morgan called this Tarzanism.
Jesus clearly did not subscribe to this view of human nature.
In the Gospel this morning we heard not only how the meaning of his life was to be realised through self-giving, but also of the male disciples arguing about which of them was going to be number one, and of Jesus’ gentle rejoinder.
In typically Marcan fashion we get a very economical account of the whole affair, but one which invites us to read between the lines. Jesus and his followers appear to be walking south towards Jerusalem where Jesus’ prediction about the manner of his death is going to be fulfilled. They are heading away from their home in Galilee into unfamiliar territory. Capernaum is the last mentioned haven before the next stage of the journey. The disciples’ argument about precedence is just one more example of how hard they found following Jesus to be. The inference from Mark is that he noticed their dispute but waited until the right moment and the right place to inquire about it.
When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about they are wonderfully shifty, responding with an embarrassed silence. He does not castigate them or tear a strip off them. He puts to them, very gently, an alternative.
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
And then to reinforce the lesson he uses the example of welcoming a child. In that world children did not have the same status as they do in ours, and it is possible that Jesus was using a play on words, as the Aramaic word for child and servant (talya) can mean either. To welcome in my name, he says, is to welcome not just me, but the one who sent me. The message is not an instruction in what to do or not do, but to be this kind of person.
I have been paying a lot of attention in recent weeks to the letter of James, and the section we heard read this morning again is full of insights, some of which echo this wisdom of Jesus.
James 3.13-15 at the very beginning of our reading this morning:
‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not be boastful and false to the truth.’
When I started this sermon I mentioned the research about the mutability of emotions and mentioned the oddness of the Japanese word for the good feeling that comes from surrendering personal autonomy, from the point of view of a society like ours that has almost enthroned personal autonomy as a necessary virtue in itself. But if we are to take Jesus’ teaching and life seriously, we do have to give the ideas of sacrifice and the giving up of power due regard.
I was talking to someone the other day who had a relative who was an enclosed nun, and they were saying that the older they get the more they are able to understand the value of a life given to simplicity and prayer, one aspect of which is that element the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton used to cherish. By not being bombarded by so much data and information, opinion and propaganda, it is possible to take a clearer view of the world.
I suspect that in our hearts most of us know that the world can not sustain levels of constantly increasing consumption – despite Jeff Bezos’ fantasies – and we might wish to be delivered from the psychological assaults of modern consumerism. The contagious hatreds that led to 9/11 and generated a spiral of vengeance since have not weakened W. H. Auden’s case at all.
‘We must love one another or die.’
That teaching of Jesus, not to prioritise our personal desires but to give our attention to others, especially those who are less noticed and deemed less valuable, might be best understood, not as an ethical rule to follow, but as wisdom about what is really good for us.
It is possibly another version of the beatitudes found in the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed, or happy, or fulfilled, or flourishing are those who are aware of their own frailty and needs and rather than striving to boss the world or knock down all those who threaten them, keep a lookout for the wellbeing of others.