IS 53: 10-11; HEB 4: 14-16; MK 10: 35-45
“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant”
During the American Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers who were busy pulling out a horse carriage stuck in deep mud. Their officer was shouting instructions to them while making no attempt to help. The stranger who witnessed the scene asked the officer why he wasn’t helping. With great dignity, the officer replied, “Sir, I am a Corporal!” The stranger dismounted from his horse and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers himself. When the job was completed, he turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this, and don’t have enough men to do it, inform your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” Too late, the proud Corporal recognized General Washington. Washington understood that those who aspire to greatness or rank first among others must serve the needs of all. Where did Washington learn such leadership skills? I have no doubt he learned them here, in these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Dear friends! The name “Great Britain” says a lot on greatness. Among other things it points out the basic desire in every person to become great. It is so basic that if one cannot become great, one tries to attach oneself to something that is great. If that too is not possible, some strive at least to look great.
Moved by this universal desire to become great, Ss James and John, in the gospel, ask the Jesus whether they could be a sort of President and Vice-president or Prime Minister and Chancellor when he becomes King. Jesus does not blame them for asking this, but points out to them, perhaps to their embarrassment, that true greatness is achieved through service: “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness, must serve the rest”. Jesus first outlined in today’s gospel, the accepted standard of civil authority: domination, with rulers lording it over their subjects. But this is not how it must be in his community. He saw authority as an opportunity to serve.
In this election year, it is good that we reflect on who can be a good leader in the light of today’s gospel. People seek authority for different reasons. Some people like the power that goes with it; it makes them feel important. Others like the prestige it brings. Others like the higher salary. All these reasons have one thing in common – authority is seen as an opportunity to promote oneself.
Jean Vanier (fouder of L’ Arche) distinguishes two kinds of authority: an authority which imposes, dominates and controls; and an authority which accompanies, listens, liberates, empowers, gives people confidence in themselves and calls them to be aware of their responsibilities.
Jesus sees authority as an opportunity to serve. As always, he set the example himself. He did not lord it over people. He appealed, he invited, but left the response to them. This is how he wanted authority to be exercised in his community. Authority should not be given to those who seek it, but only to those who have proved that they are willing to serve.
It may sound unbelievable, but it is true that Asia’s first Nobel Prize winner in Literature (1913), Rabindranath Tagore, was behind the three great national anthems of three nations, viz. Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. He was also the first non-westerner to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He did so in 1913. He wrote this short poem: “I slept and dreamt that life was Joy; Then I awoke and realized that life was Service. And then I went to work – and, lo and behold, I discovered that Service is Joy.”
Service is not to be understood as meaning only menial jobs, the sort done by domestic servants. Service is also any noble and unselfish act. It includes one’s daily duty taken as God’s will for us. We do serve God and human society at large whenever we do our daily task with a sense of dedication and justice, also offering a helping hand to those with whom we live and work. Of course duty, however praiseworthy, is not the ideal Christian service. Christ challenges us to go beyond one’ duty and serve our fellow human beings without hope of gain or reward, without gratitude or praise.
True Christian service is, therefore, that which is done solely out of love without any personal advantage, in order to continue Christ’s work of bringing light and hope, help and healing into the lives of others. Suffering and service go hand in hand. Service always involves suffering because one can’t help another without some personal sacrifice. Let us ask ourselves: Am I willing to render selfless service to all my fellow human beings?