I find the time we live in intriguing…on multiple levels, but allow me to select one of these to dissect. In our time, the resounding cries for social justice, the avid support of non-profits, our lofty respect of volunteerism, and the aroma of eagerness from companies to slap “Fair Trade” or to use cancer research as a marketing ploy are everywhere. And, please, hear me: I am more than completely okay with it all. In fact, in many ways, I find all of this encouraging. We now live in a time that taking care of other people is almost in fashion. Flip back through humanity’s biography and you will struggle to find this same trend. You may find hints and hiccups of philanthropy but not to the same degree as you will see in your newspaper (if you still belong to the ever waning populace that receive a rolled and wrinkled chunk of cheap paper every day at your abode). And many of these cases were of mercy and grace being used as tools to manipulate the masses.
In many ways, I wonder if this is due in no small part to the infection of Jesus’ message of love and service into the world. Perhaps, after 2000 years, love and service have finally become such a foundational element to our world’s existence that it is now in fashion. I wouldn’t doubt that there are numerous thesis papers out there on this topic; this is not what I wish to waste ink on. What I am intrigued by is the reason behind all of it: Are we serving because we care for our “neighbor” or because we want to acknowledge some other person who is worse than us? Are we feeding the hungry so that they will cease to be hungry, even for a moment, or because we want to feel some satisfaction with the life we currently possess? Do we serve to serve or to justify our glamorous lives? I know. Most of us would never label our lives as glamorous. I mean, with our flat screen TV, consistent and reliable heating, our stoves and refrigeration, our car(s), our ever growing closets, our beauty supplies, our 2-ply or 4-ply toilet paper, our running water, our cell phone, laptop, tablet, watch, and stereo, how could any of us ever think of our lives as glamorous.
I do not wish to question every person who volunteers and serves. Rather, I wish to question myself. The other day, I was struck by a comment from Kenneth Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. In it, he quotes Daniel T. Niles,
[Jesus] was a true servant because He was at the mercy of those whom He came to serve…This weakness of Jesus, we His disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not service but beneficence.
What immediately was conceived in my mind was the nature of the word “service. The Greek word for “to serve” in the New Testament is διακονέω. It was originally used of those who would be in a position of service within a household, as in a slave, a woman, an attendant, etc. Another Greek word was δοῦλος, a slave. We find διακονέω in Luke 22:25-27,
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
We find δοῦλος in Matthew 20:25-28,
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (δοῦλος), even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Both of these words, in their original context, do not mean “volunteering” but rather find their meaning in servanthood and slavery. This was the verb of those in lower positions, in places of great need and even oppression. Service was not the call of the powerful but the call of the weak. Service was not meant to be the occupation of the wealthy and capable but of the poor and broken. In fact, if the wealthy and capable wished to serve, they would have to put themselves in the position of the receiver. Their wealth and position would actually prevent them from truly serving others because, in order to serve, they would have to be at the mercy of those whom they served as a slave his master.
This is why service demands humility; it demands our need for others. Service insubordinates ourselves to others and, in so doing, lifts the other person up. True service requires that I am the beneficiary of the other. In order to serve, I must receive.
Perhaps this is why the message of Jesus changed the world; it flipped everything on its head (“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant”). It said that the needy can bless just as much as the wealthy and that the wealthy can be the least. It also repudiates the concept that gifts and mercy somehow empower ourselves over the receiver. There is no longer a debt but just a gift, as a slave would give his master. My service is no longer an attempt to manipulate my position but rather to elevate the position of the one I am serving. As Bailey later states, “In this way the cycle of pride in the giver and humiliation on the part of the receiver is broken.”
The call to serve and be a slave requires that I lower myself to others, that I take of my outer garments and put myself in a lower position than the ones whom I wish to serve. To be the greatest I must be the least. If I do not let others wash my feet, I have no share with Christ (John 13:8).
Perhaps the call for the Church today is not to serve more but rather to be served more. Possibly, those who are weak and needy are in the best position to have the greatest impact. Maybe, just maybe, we should be people that need to be helped so that we can help even more. Maybe…