Freely We Serve
Philippians 2.7 Of his own
free will he gave up all he had and took the nature of a servant.
traditional vision of Jesus celebrated on Palm Sunday pictures him
entering the holy city in regal triumph. The people, so it is said,
instinctively knew he was a great man and honoured him as such. Here at
last was God's great king, the Messiah-Christ, come to liberate the
world from oppression and injustice.
Nothing could be further from the
The Palm Sunday myth is, as we now
know from centuries of rigourous analysis of the gospels, a creation of
the early Church. It is part of the process by which Jesus of Nazareth
was elevated from man to God.
Not that this was bad or unnatural at
the time. It was the way in which people then paid homage to an
exceptional life. So, for example, Roman emperors were proclaimed divine
after death. As it happens, Jesus the resurrected god had considerable
competition from many others.
Jesus probably did enter Jerusalem for
Passover. Some people no doubt hoped he would take over the city and the
Temple. But the fact is that the authorities - the Romans and their
priestly collaborators - noticed him. They judged him a threat and
quickly killed him to avoid civil disorder in a city jam-packed with
If Jesus attracted considerable attention on
this occasion, he also occasioned great disappointment. One reason was
his deliberate emphasis on servitude. An authentic saying of
Jesus tends to invite as much incredulity in the 21st century as it no
doubt did in its original setting. It is that
If any one of you wants to be great,
you must be the servant of the rest (Mark 10.43).
Those around him in the first century knew what
this meant. The vast majority were what Westerners would today call
economic slaves. That is, they lived on or below the breadline and had
far less freedom of choice about their work than most do today.
Even now there are still slaves in Africa. But
they are enslaved by force, not by circumstance. Nobody in the 21st
century would voluntarily accept that lifestyle. A woman in Shanghai
chooses to bake food on the street rather than submit to the informal
slavery of a clothing sweatshop. A teenager in Togo lives on the street
in preference to beatings and starvation as a child slave.
Where does that leave us? We rightly oppose servitude
as oppressive and unjust. The great social movements of the past 200
years have all striven to abolish it. What relevance can Jesus then
possibly have for us when he calls us to choose servitude?
The great English poet Milton took this up when
he wrote in Paradise Lost that
Freely we serve because freely we love ...
in this we stand or fall.
He is pointing out that love is by definition
voluntary. Loving action, the pivot of Christian life, cannot be forced.
Service not freely chosen is not true service. This, or something
like it, may lead us to an answer to the puzzle of Jesus' call to
Serving others cannot mean merely taking a position at the bottom of
the pile. Such a teaching would make nonsense of our lives - though it
might be a useful mechanism for abolishing control freaks in the Church.
No. It seems that the service Jesus has in mind is not the exercise
of power for the self-interest of a person or group. Nor is it the
holier-than-thou enforcement of orthodoxy or the self-satisfied rescue
of the poor or less fortunate. Still less is it the hypocritical
assertion of service while simultaneously abusing a position of
Rather, service is to do everything in whatever position one occupies
with the good of others to the forefront, just as a faithful servant
takes his or her employer's good truly to heart.