by Fr. Jack McArdle
Through the prophet Isaiah, God spoke of the Messiah he would send, with these words: "Look at my Servant, whom I have chosen...". In his teaching, Jesus said that the greatest in his kingdom are those who serve. Because he had come to 'do and to teach', in that order, it is essential, therefore, that his life is seen as one of service first, and teaching second. His whole life was one of obedience to the Father through his service of his people. In Jesus' day, there were two groups of Levites who served in the Temple. There was one group who served God directly through the offering of sacrifices, and the second group who served the people who came to the Temple. Jesus connected both levels of service by equating them in importance. 'The first commandment is loving God,....and the second is like this, loving one's neighbour.' Jesus would go further in the connection between both when he said that what we did for others, he would take as being done for himself.
When he washed the feet of his apostles, Jesus gave them a powerful example of service. He took off his cloak, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. This must have brought gasps of astonishment from the apostles, because this was exactly the way in which a slave performed his tasks. This was a much more powerful image of service than it might appear to our western eyes today. No wonder Peter was so shocked as to object, and to refuse to let Jesus stoop so low to minister to him. Jesus insisted, however, and to Peter's further objections, he said 'Unless you let me wash your feet, you cannot be one of my disciples.' This probably shocked Peter some more, but, with his usual effusiveness, he told Jesus to wash not just his feet, but his head and hands as well. If being willing to accept such lowly service from Jesus was a condition for living in his kingdom, then Peter would accept it. Peter had not understood Jesus' earlier words about the greatest in his kingdom being the one who serves. Away back at the time of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Simeon had prophesied 'This child shall be a sign of contradiction...' In such humble service, he certainly was a total contradiction to the accepted norms of his day. His kingdom was not of this world, and its teachings were diametrically opposed to the values and norms of the world. In his kingdom, the last shall be first, the first shall be last. The greatest people are those who serve; it is in giving that we receive, and it is in dying that we enter into life. This was revolutionary in the extreme, something I would like to explore in the following chapter.
Jesus was always prepared to walk that extra mile with another. He offered to accompany the Centurion to where his servant was. This would also have been prompted by his admiration for one in such a position of authority having such concern for a slave. He travelled with Jairus to his home, and he went out to Bethany to be with Martha and Mary in their hour of bereavement. His whole disposition was one of giving. This, of course, would be brought to the extreme on Calvary, when he gave till it was all gone. He had spoken about this level of giving on many occasions. 'The person who seeks to save his life will lose it....' What we keep for ourselves will die when we die. Only that which we have given to others will take on an eternal value. In fact, he made this the criterion for general judgement. Not even a cup of cold water, given in his name, will go unrewarded. The theme of his judgement will be scandalously materialistic. He will not ask about religious experience, or religious observance. He will ask about food, clothes, water, and about the kindly concern for others. This must have been a complete turn-up for the books! No wonder the religious leaders were outraged. This man was a very dangerous revolutionary, and must be gotten rid of, before he destroys the whole fabric of their cherished way of being and of living.
The Magnificat is a wonderful hymn of praise and exultation. It also provides some very helpful insights into God. He is a God who fills the hungry, who cherishes the poor, and who dismisses from his company those who refuse to share with others from their surfeit. He raises up the down-trodden, and he knocks the mighty from their high perches. On the surface, this may seem harsh and unjust. Certainly, from a merely human perspective, it is difficult to promote, or to defend. No wonder Paul prays that we might have 'that mind that was always in Christ Jesus'. Without the Spirit of God in our hearts, we could never hope to see anything with the mind and heart of Christ. It is the work of the Spirit to teach us, and to bring us into an awareness and an acceptance of truth, as Jesus proposes it.
The whole attitude of the Christian is best summarised in Jesus' teaching, which we call the Beatitudes. This is a way of being. It summarises the main qualities of Christian behaviour, which, of course, run totally contrary to worldly wisdom and expectations. The really rich people are those who are detached from earthly wealth. Jesus never confused riches with material possessions. He declares those rich who are free from the bondage of earthly wealth. He proclaims those powerful who turn the other cheek, and forgive. The greatest are the gentle and the meek; and the true heroes in his kingdom are those whose life-style draws the wrath and opposition of the world. In all of this is something that, in our better moments, we must see as being highly attractive, if not daunting. 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.' This teaching is scary, because it touches the raw nerve of our insecurities. This is, indeed, a very clear example of our need for the enlightenment of the Spirit of truth, because these are gospel truths that, of ourselves, as human beings, we never could grasp or embrace. Such concepts are outside the boundaries of the natural, materialistic, human mind. 'They also serve who only stand and wait' is one of the many paradoxes of service. It is not about achieving anything. It is a way of being. There is power and strength in meekness and gentleness. Such people 'possess the land', Jesus says. The one who is pure of heart, who is not emboiled in hidden and selfish agendas, is the one who see God.
Religion, divorced from service of others, is a travesty of everything that God is, or wants. The story of the Good Samaritan is a case in point. The religious people refused to help, because they had some religious commitment or obligation which needed their attention. The Samaritan, on the other, was seen by them as someone who had 'no religion.' He did not belong to the lofty heights of the high and mighty. Perhaps the significance in this is, from his lower perspective, he was much more aware of what was going on around him. This is the whole point of Incarnation, when Jesus surrendered his place in the highest heavens, and came down to the level of the lowliest sinner. 'Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and became as human beings are.' Note 'as human beings are', not just as human beings look. This perspective is a very important dimension of service. Jesus went further still when he went on his knees, at ground level, with a basin of water. The ministry of the Samaritan was given without expectation of anything in return. It is covenant, rather than contract. A contract with another implies equal responsibility to meets each other's expectation in the action. I give the shopkeeper some money, and I expect to receive the item I have come to purchase. I can easily break a contract, by cancelling an order, or failing to pay my debts. A covenant, on the other hand, is a contract under seal, to which I can be unfaithful, but which cannot be broken. It implies loyalty, fidelity, and a sense of something that survives. It includes services freely given, without the condition of remuneration. Jesus is involved in humble service, and he allows the receiver the freedom of the response. The nine lepers who were healed did not have their leprosy return just because they failed to give thanks!
The ministry which Jesus entrusted to his apostles was one of service. Freely they had received, so freely they were to give. They were not to work for earthly reward, because their reward would be in heaven. Through this kind of ministry, they could lay up treasures in heaven, where neither the moth nor the rust could destroy. The harvest is great, and they are to pray the Lord of the harvest to send more servants into his harvest. They were to be vigilant in their work, and happy are those whom the Lord finds alert when he returns. In Jesus' own words 'I will gird myself, and minister to them.' This is remarkable. Even at his final coming, instead of judging those who are alert, he is prepared to minister to them. The greatest thanks I could give Jesus for dying for me, is to willingly accept all that he earned for me. Like Peter, we should come to the point of being willing to allow him wash 'my head and my hands as well'.
In the catechism of some years back, we were told that 'God created us to know, love, and serve him......' Jesus tells us that when we serve, we are still, and always will be, unprofitable servants, in that we are doing the very thing we were created to do. If we are to be disciples of the Servant Lord, then service for others should be our trademark. Love, by its nature, has to continually express itself. In other words, love must always be a witness. The witness of the early Christians was so evident that the pagans remarked 'See how these Christians love one another'. The Acts of the Apostles gives many details of the ways in which this love was expressed, through the various ways of sharing, and of ministering to one another. They were known as Followers of the Way, and they continued to live as Jesus lived, and as he taught them to live. Jesus had come to serve, not to condemn. He really had nothing of earthly value to share with others, but he certainly shared all he did have with them. He gave them his time, he gave them his interest, he gave them, above all, his love. On occasions, he spent so much time with the crowds, that his apostles were exhausted. He sent them off to rest, while he himself continued to care for the people, and to send them on their way home. This, on many occasions, left himself so exhausted that he slept soundly in the boat at the height of a violent storm. In his service, he gave of himself, and in his death, he would give himself totally, and there is no greater love than that.
God is love. Jesus was the Father's most real, evident, and down-to-earth expression of his love. Jesus was God's love incarnate, God's love in a body. In Jesus, the Father's love had hands, feet, and a voice. Paul gives a wonderful definition of love. Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, or boastful, or proud, or rude. It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Loves never gives up, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Paul has much more to say about love. To all of that we could add 'Love is caring, always watchful for the welfare of the other, and always puts others first. It is humble in its service, and enriching in its giving. It is devoted, it is constant, and it is entirely reliable at all times.' In the early Christian church, when the historical memory of the man Jesus was still fresh in the mind, Jesus is often referred to as the Servant of God. 'The God of our ancestors has given divine glory to his Servant Jesus......And so God chose his Servant, and sent him at first to you.....the signs that were preformed in the name of his Servant Jesus....God, you will not allow your faithful Servant to rot in the grave.'
In his preview of the Judgement, Jesus tells us that he will welcome his followers into his kingdom with these words 'Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of the Lord.' It is of the nature of Christian service to be faithful to the end, just as Jesus taught us, through his words, and, especially through the shining example of his life and death.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.