Several years ago, the American newspaper USA Today published an article on Dr Dylan Selterman, a psychologist and university lecturer. What got the newspaper’s attention was Dr Selterman’s habit of including in the final course exam the following question:
Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added to your final grade. But there’s a small catch: If more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points.
If you were sitting that exam, how would you answer? You might be interested to know that last time he put that question in the exam 20 percent of the students selected 6 points so, true, to his word, the professor gave no extra credit to any of his students.
What was the point?
You see the exercise is more than just a lesson in self-interest. Rather, it highlights the dilemma between doing what’s good for you as an individual versus doing what’s best for the group or community. It is a tension that is lived out daily in our own choices and struggles. There will always be people who, for what ever reason, behave selfishly and consider the benefit to themselves before thinking about anyone else. However, if too many people act in that way, everyone suffers.
In many ways the extra credit question is equivalent to any resource in our community that we would all use, like food or water or land or any finite resource. If people are mindful of their own consumption, then it’s fine, but if too many people are selfish, then we all suffer. Just think of the drought we had in Southeast Queensland a few years back. When everyone was mindful of their own consumption and consciously conserved water and made sure the taps were tightly turned off, then we were confident we would get through the drought together. However, if there was a sizeable proportion of our neighbours who flaunted the water restrictions, watered the lawn and took extra-long showers, then in the end, all of us would have suffered!
With that as a backdrop, I think Dr Dylan Selterman’s exam question also is an object lesson in Christian discipleship! We hear very clearly in today’s gospel: “If anyone wishes to be first, they shall be last and the servant of all . . .” It’s a proposition that goes against our natural instincts. All our choices have consequences! If we are honest with ourselves, our first instinct to any given situation or event is to consider firstly the impact it has on me. Whereas Jesus seems to be inviting us to consider the impact of our decisions on others, weigh up the consequences of our actions, think beyond our own little world and see the possibilities our choices can have!
Actually, I believe consciously living out Jesus’ description of being a servant is how we become mature and contributing members of our local community. But more than that, it is how our Christian faith this week finds purpose and meaning!