Summary: Jesus teaches us to serve first, foremost and always.
You must first be a servant
"Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must first be a servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
We tend to read this passage and think of these as gentle, reassuring words. We are wrong. To an oppressed people who lived with Roman conquerors ordering them about every day, this didn’t sound like something the Messiah - the deliverer - would say. They were waiting for the one who would set them free to show up on the scene with sword in hand and say, "Now you will be in charge. Now you will be kings." The last thing they expected, or even wanted, was a promised one who said, "you should be a slave for the rest of your life." These were hard words, and a bitter pill to swallow then, and now.
We talk of the victorious savior and we love to refer to him as the Risen Christ. Imagining Christ standing victorious over death with the keys to life in his hands we uplift a strong, powerful image of our faith. What we don’t often lift up is the image of a realistic rabbi who told his pupils to serve one another, not wait for the day when someone will serve you.
"I quit going to Sunday School because I just wasn’t getting anything," some say. We expect the Christian education programs of our church to feed us continually with solid meat and fine bits of knowledge. But when the study topic is one we don’t like or the class tackles a project requiring more work than browsing through a booklet on the drive to church, some folks simply disappear. The message of our rabbi patiently repeats is the idea of the servant. We may not feel we need that class (a debatable frame of mind, at best) but we should remember that the class needs us. If you aren’t learning maybe you should be teaching. If you don’t feel you’re getting maybe you should be giving.
In ministry we are used to the idea of serving the church. It’s in our vocabulary. "I serve at So-and-So Church," we reply when people ask about our ministry. Consistent with the priesthood of believers, all Christians should think of the church as a place they serve. Perhaps they can serve in diaconate, on a committee, or as a nursery worker. As a veteran youth director and adult Sunday School teacher I can verify that the person who attends regularly, participates frequently and smiles generously serves the church as well. Don’t judge your community of faith but what it can give you. Discern what you can add to it.
The same attitude is productive at work, play, and home. Do a quality job for your employer, whether your boss remembers to thank you or not. Because someday when a co-worker asks how you can stand to work so well under your conditions you can say, "My rabbi says to serve others first" or "My faith encourages me to do my best." It is a better witness than all the tracts and sermons in the world.
The one place we usually don’t need to be reminded to serve is at home. As we carry in the groceries, mow the lawn, and retrieve socks from under every desk and bed in the house we are dreadfully aware of our servitude. Sometimes it is easy to picture our spouses and children as Roman conquerors sitting on the couch eating grapes planning their next trip to the Coliseum as we dust and vacuum around them. If that is the case then we need to remember it is not out job just to be servants, but also to teach service. Encourage every member of the family to help one another and keep the house functioning as a unit. Our rabbi performed acts of service not just to get things done, but to be an example of the way all disciples should treat one another. So should we.
The bottom line on the issue of service is that it is the only way to be truly free. As long as someone is the conquerer, someone is a slave. But when we each take the teaching of our rabbi to heart and we serve one another, then our community will achieve the equality and glory our God deserves.
You can’t gather fruit with a full basket and you can’t cram more information in a computer that has a full memory bank. We must give the fruit and free the memory in order to do more. We must give our lives and serve others to be renewed with joy. Surely, our cup runneth over. But Jesus advises us to do more than marvel at God’s abundance as the grace overflows onto the ground. The Messiah desires us to give the contents of the cup to another so that we maybe filled again.