At the Last Supper, Jesus gives us the example of a servant by washing the feet of His Apostles and telling them that they should follow the example and seek to serve others (John 13:12-16). Yet a bit later He remarks, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) So, are we servants or not?
The word serve in the dictionary has many meanings. (38 nuanced definitions depending upon how it is used!) Some definitions that fit the purpose for my reflection include: to answer the needs of, to attend, to comply with the demands of, and to be of use. In the etymology of the word, it may be traced back to Latin, “to perform duties for (a master) in the capacity of a slave, act in subservience, to be at the service of.” However, it is possible that the original sense was “watcher (of flocks), or guardian,” per Merriam-Webster. It should be of no surprise that the Good Shepherd would ask us to follow in His footsteps and serve, or watch over/guard others. Yet there seems to be a fine line between servant and slave.
Baptism has freed us from original sin, and that means we have freedom of choice. Does that choice mean we can choose anything we want? Yes AND no! The “yes” answer is conditional in that we need to accept the responsibility and the consequences of our choices. The “no” answer is based on our understanding that we are just one tiny part of a bigger world (of nature, community, history, etc.) and our choices have impacts that can have a ripple effect that we may never realize. Our current self-indulgent culture has a great distaste for serving, unless it is in favor of the individual being served. Freedom and service seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum; an either/or decision. Yet God calls us to both. We can be servants to others without losing our freedom.
When we freely choose to serve another, to do a task at the request of another, we live out the example that Jesus gave His Apostles. We become not less of ourselves, but more fully ourselves by relating to that person and to Jesus in the same action. These experiences shape and develop us, opening us up to doing God’s will. If being of service to others means I am a slave, then by all means let me be a slave of Jesus — for He purchased me with His own Body and Blood on the cross. But Jesus has called us His friends, for we do not blindly take commands. Rather with the Love that is God, we perform acts of service. First, to acknowledge the love we have for each person made in the image and likeness of God; second, as an expression of praise and worship to God for bestowing his Love on us; and, third as an acceptance of the Love God gives to us.
If we seek to be truly free, we should seek to serve God and do His will.