The Humble Servant
“Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”
My grandmother, long since departed, was born in the early years of the 20th century. All her life, she worked as a cleaner – a profession of which she was very proud. Everything had to be neat, tidy and beautifully cared-for. With a tin of brasso in one hand, and a polishing cloth in the other, her home was always immaculate – every surface polished, and everything in its place. (It’s more than possible that my own slight obsession with tidiness was inherited from my Grandma. I think it’s probably her fault that poor old Sandra has to suffer in relative silence when I moan about the state of the Vestry, or insist that the Altar needs to be moved by half an inch!)
Like many young girls at the turn of the last century, my Grandmother’s profession as a cleaner started at a very young age. At 14, she was packed off from her little Brixham home to a big house in Torquay, where, in her words, she ‘went into service’. She started by raking out and setting fire-places for the whole house, long before the days of central heating. The rest of her days were spent scrubbing and washing and sweeping and cleaning. In return for her ‘service’, she was given room and board and a small amount of pocket money – which she brought home to her parents on her occasional day off. My grandmother was, in fact, a servant in the time when we still knew what servant-hood was.
Around that same time, I believe that the typical Rectory would have had five or six servants to look after the Rector and his family. (Ah! Those were the days!) These days, we engage professional cleaners, or gardeners, or other household professions for those tasks we can’t do for ourselves. But they are not servants. They are ‘trades-people’ – and there is equity between us. We all play our part in keeping society going, each one contributing what they do best to the good of the whole. On the whole, I think ours is a superior system…but it does mean that we have somewhat forgotten the force of the metaphor of a servant, when Jesus uses it.
Servants were, of course, a well-defined class in Jesus’ time. Usually, they were actual slaves – who had no choice about the job they were required to do. In fact, whenever Jesus talks about ‘servants’ in the New Testament, the original word he used was ‘slave’. There were clear lines of delineation, between slaves and their master. It was very clear who was in charge, and whose rules were to be followed. To be a servant – a slave – was to be one of the humblest members of society.
It was, for example, the job of a servant to wash the feet of anyone who entered their Master’s house. First century roadways were full of muck, including horse and donkey muck, of course. And everyone wore open-toed sandals. So, washing someone’s feet was no happy task! Which is why Jesus’ disciples were so scandalised by their Master being so insistent on washing their feet, before the Last Supper. It was an act of complete abasement. It was the worst job of the moment. It was the job of the humblest slave.
And yet this is what Jesus taught his disciples. He taught them that to be the humblest of servants was their calling in life. This was what he called them to: not power, authority, command and mastery. But service. Or in its Latin-based equivalent: ministry.
It does me no harm at all to be reminded from time to time that I am called to be your servant! Of course, some of that service is expressed through the giving of leadership and teaching – which feels rather paradoxical, to be honest. But leadership which is based in the concept of ‘servant-hood’ is a very different kind of leadership than that which is based in the concept of being a ‘Master’. I lead you, to the best of my ability, as an act of service. My motivation is your growth, and your thriving. Someone who leads from the view-point of a Master may be said to be seeking to feather their own nest, or to advance only their own desires.
It is for that very reason that Government leaders are also called ‘Ministers’. The leadership of a nation should never be about gaining ‘mastery’ or power. Neither should it be about the ‘feathering of one’s own nest’. We may well ask whether any politician who seeks a form of ‘kingship’ as a result of their elevation to power is really suited to be the kind of servant-leader that the job of a minister, or even a ‘prime minister’ requires.
Jesus tells us, in today’s Gospel, that a servant is not greater than their Master. For a politician, that means remembering always that the electorate is their Master. For a Christian, it means never failing to heed the teaching of our Master, Jesus himself.
Everything we do, in the service of others or of God, must be done within the framework that Jesus himself lays down. So when Jesus tells us that forgiveness is the route to salvation, we must learn to forgive. When Jesus warns us that greed is not the pathway to joy, then we must learn to give things up. When Jesus teaches us that suffering is the route to healing, we must take him at his word.
As servants of the Most High God, and ministers of Jesus Christ, we are all called to embrace the radical, servant-leadership that he himself models for us. For if it’s good enough for our master, it’s good enough for us slaves. Amen.