The College where I worked in Georgia had as its motto the last line of our Gospel reading: “not to be served but to serve.” Perhaps that’s why I have been so drawn to that last line. Not just to the old college motto, but to the whole sentence. “The Son of Man,” that’s Jesus himself, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Two words in that sentence stick out for me: serving, being a servant, and ransom.
I think first about Jesus as the suffering servant, Jesus coming to serve us, and on our calling to serve others.
What does it mean to a servant, to be, as Jesus also puts it, “a slave to all”? In principle, I am committed to a life of Christian service, and to the ideal of Christian people serving each other and serving the world. We all have to be, since Jesus commands it. But being a servant doesn’t sound great.
When I was young my grandmother had a woman who worked for her around the house. One time in casual conversation, my grandmother referred to this woman as her “servant.” That made me a uncomfortable enough that I remember it more than thirty years after my grandmother’s death. I’d like to think my grandmother didn’t mean to be insulting, but calling this woman a servant seemed demeaning.
For exactly the same reason, I don’t want to be or to think of myself as a servant.
That became clear when I went for a walk with a friend a couple of weeks ago. He got to talking about his marriage, and his calling to be a servant to his wife.
Now, that strikes me as an admirable way for a Christian man to think about marriage. But as we talked, I was thinking, I am not so sure about being Carrie’s servant. No doubt I should do more around the house. No doubt Carrie would appreciate that. But I don’t want to get carried away (pun intended)
Just to be on the safe side, I told Carrie my friend thought I should be her servant, and I asked her how I was doing. She scoffed!!
Carrie does more for me than I do for her. But I don’t want her to be my servant either. I am grateful when she does things for me. But a servant? That’s going too far.
And yet Jesus says we are, all of us, to be servants for each other. That’s startling.
And then Jesus says he comes to us as a servant. Jesus himself serves us! That’s even more startling!
Now bring in our Old Testament reading. The Lord asks Job out of the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” It’s a scary moment. Job can’t say anything.
But Christ was there when the foundation of the earth was being laid. As the Gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God…. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being” (1:1, 3).
Think about the Lord who speaks so powerfully to Job in our first reading becoming incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to serve us, to be our servant!
And that’s the one who calls us to do the same: to serve each other.
So, I’ve been grappling with that this week. Called to be a servant. Not wanting to be a servant. Grateful for Christ’s service. And intimidated by the example Christ sets for us.
Hold all that in your head for a minute.
The other part of the last sentence in our Gospel sounds better: Christ came “to give his life as a ransom for” us.
Theologians have spent a lot of time on what it means to say Jesus gives his life as a ransom for us. They can get technical and abstract and very complicated. I find most of it unhelpful and sometimes actively misleading.
But Jesus is saying something really important here. You pay a ransom when someone you love is being held captive. We are the beloved ones in captivity. The key question is, what is holding us captive? What does Jesus free us from?
The answer is sin and death. But we need to be a lot more specific than that. All of us are captive to sin. But what captivity looks like in my life might be very different from it looks like in somebody else’s life. Captivity in my life might look very different from moment to moment.
I got a glimpse of a particular form of captivity in my life in a recent session of contemplative prayer, when we prayed through this very passage. As we each sat listening for God’s voice, trying to hear what God was saying to us in this passage, what I heard was Jesus assuring me that he has paid the ransom for me, and that he wants to set me free.
I wasn’t aware of being particularly bound at that moment. But as I sat with this passage, I realized a little knot of anxiety in the middle of my chest was holding me captive. It wasn’t a big deal. I don’t think anyone there was aware of my anxiety until I mentioned it. I wasn’t aware of my anxiety until I prayed with this passage.
But that little knot of anxiety was there like background noise that makes it hard to hear, I mean really hear with an open heart, the voice of God or the voices of the people around me.
In that moment, the captivity from which I needed to be freed was my little knot of anxiety. Thankfully, contemplative prayer helped.
I invite you to take some time this afternoon to prayerfully ask yourself, what is holding you captive. Jesus wants you to be free. What is standing in your way? Then ask Jesus to help you with it.
But for now, I want to combine this vision of Christian freedom from captivity with the call to Christian servanthood.
In our passage, Jesus offers us a picture of Christian community, with all the members offering loving service to each other and, of course, to everyone else too. It’s a beautiful picture. One of the things that attracted pagans to Christianity in the time of the early Church was the way Christians cared for each other.
And yet we hesitate, at least I do, at the idea of being a true servant, at truly opening our heart to all our brothers and sisters, Christian and not.
I worry that people might take advantage of me. And of course they might. I worry that the need is overwhelming. And of course it is.
I am afraid, or too proud, or too wounded, or too any of a whole host of things to love and to serve as Christ calls me to do, to fully embrace the Church and the world.
And along comes Jesus, reminding me that I don’t have to be afraid, and that I shouldn’t be too proud, and that he can heal my wounds, and that he comes as a ransom to set me free from whatever else it might be that holds me back. Jesus releases us from captivity so that we can love with abandon, love recklessly, and serve freely. Freedom and service turn out to go together.
And so I give thanks to God for Christ who sets us free, who calls us to serve, and who makes true service possible. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan