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(Part 13)


November 10, 2009

Today’s gospel reading (Lk 17:7-10) teaches us about our proper posture as servant leaders. The following reflection is taken from my new book Servant Leadership, chapter 16.

Servants are important to a master. A master gets things done by having servants do tasks for him. We too are called to serve God, and as such are important to Him. In fact, though God can and does act directly in the lives of people, most of the time He acts in and through human instruments.

Now problems come when the instrument given the privilege to serve and empowered by the master for service begins to think that he, having done great things, is himself great. When such pride comes in, the fall inevitably follows. God wants to avoid this, so as to keep His servants functioning well so that He can accomplish His plan for the world.

The key is in the servant being constantly aware of who he is before the Master, and of knowing that apart from the Master he can do nothing. If the servant simply obeys and knows his place, then he will be used by the Master and be blessed.

The attitude of a servant

Jesus himself illustrated the proper attitude of a servant.

“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable[1] servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”[2] (Lk 17:7-10)

A first observation is that it would seem Jesus is quite harsh, perhaps even cruel. After all, servants, even with their lowly status, should be afforded proper respect and due consideration.

To think that is to miss the meaning of being a servant, or a slave, during those olden times. Today we think of a servant, or perhaps an employee, as someone who has rights, is paid justly, has set hours of work, enjoys vacation and other privileges, or can even go on strike. It was not that way in Jesus’ time. The so-called servants during those days were actually slaves. They may have been taken captive in a war or in a raid on a village, and then sold in the marketplace as a slave. Once purchased, they became the property of the owner. They had no rights, no identity, and could not complain if they were overworked or not fed.

So when Jesus told his disciples about a servant being called by his master from the field and told to recline at table for a meal, his listeners might have burst out in laughter and engaged in good-natured ribbing. Such was simply unthinkable. When the laughter died down, Jesus then told it as it really is. What the servant needed to do, even after a hard day’s labor out in the field, would be to serve the master at his meal. Only after the master finished could the servant have his own meal.

But there is more. The master did not even have to thank the servant for his service. Why? The servant was only doing what was expected of him. He was only doing his duty. He was only following orders.

Then the clincher. The servant’s own posture is simply to accept that he is worthless or unprofitable. It was not a question of what service he rendered, or of how valuable he had been to the master, or how much he had sacrificed. Rather, it was simply a question of who he was. He was a slave, a nobody, one with no rights. He was one who did not need to be thanked or acknowledged.

The attitude of a servant leader

We are servants of Jesus, our Lord and Master. We had been under the dominion of the evil one, a situation of slavery to darkness and sin. Jesus redeemed us with his blood. He purchased us, and we now belong totally to him.

As such, our proper attitude is the same as that of the slave. In serving God, we are to expend ourselves, we are not to look to our convenience or comfort, we are not to demand wages or perquisites, and we should not expect to be thanked. We are only doing what we ought to do.

In fact, if anyone is to be thanked, it should be we the servants thanking Jesus the Master. Jesus has given us the privilege to do his very own work, to participate in that very wonderful task of proclaiming him to the world, to care for the very people whom he died for and saved, to help bring people to their eternal destiny in heaven. Jesus allows us to stand in his very own place, caring for his very own flock. Such is a privilege like no other.

Such an attitude should manifest itself in different ways in our service.

  • We serve without counting the cost, ready to bear any sacrifice.
  • We do not serve according to our own priorities or interests.
  • We are totally obedient to the Master, following his directions without question.
  • We think of nothing else but serving the Master, and how we can be pleasing to him.
  • We do not look to being thanked, and many times might be unappreciated or even rejected by the very people we serve.
  • We always realize the great privilege we have been given in serving God.
  • We rejoice in our holy slavery to Jesus.

The attitude of Jesus

Our attitude is clear: we are merely servants or slaves of Christ. We must know our proper place.

But here is something very important. Jesus is not a cruel taskmaster. He is in fact everything to the contrary.

  • Though he owns us, he respects our free will.
  • Though he is the Master, he washes our feet.
  • Though we are his slaves, he has made us his friends (Jn 15:15).
  • Though we are worthless, he has endowed us with dignity and honor as his own brethren.
  • Though he holds our lives in his hands, he is the one who gave his own life for our sakes.
  • Though we are unworthy, he has entrusted the very gift of salvation into our hands.
  • Though we should serve him at table, he allows us to eat and drink at his table in his kingdom (Lk 22:30).

Only the divine Master treats human servants in this way. In that lie our great privilege and joy.

* * *

[1] Other translations have “useless,” “unworthy,” or “worthless.”
[2] Other translations have “our duty” or “what we ought to have done.”

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