The Truly Great: those who serve and love
Homily for the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
The truly great: those who serve and love
A national magazine advertised recently for two persons to serve as servants – cook and butler – on a large estate. No one responded. The magazine concluded with this not too profound statement: “Americans don’t like to be servants, and in the long run most of us will have to learn to do without them”.
It is not only Americans who do not like to be servants. James and John, two Disciples of Christ, came to Him in today’s Gospel lesson and said: “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory”. It was as if they had said: “Lord, now that you’re going to become king, let one of us be the secretary of state and the other the secretary of treasury”
How did Jesus handle the request of James and John that they be first in the kingdom? Jesus replied by a question: “Jesus said to them: ‘can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?” They replied: “we can”. Jesus said to them: “the cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptized you shall be baptized, but as for the seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been prepared”. There is a precondition to share Christ’s glory: to share his cup, which means his passions, and his baptism, which means his death.
“When the other Disciples heard it, they became angry with James and John”. They were angry with them for their self-seeking ambition: they were also angry with themselves for not having thought to ask for these positions first.
Then “Jesus called them to him and said to them: you know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”
There is a radical difference between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. The world says that you are great according to the power that you exercise over others: the more authority you have to dominate, the greater you are. “This is not to happen among you”, said Jesus.
The world says that you are great according to the position you hold: the greater the position, the greater the person. “This is not to happen among you”, said Jesus.
The world says that you are great according to the possessions you have. Your greatness is measured by the suburb in which you live, the size of your house, the kind of car you drive, the amount of money you have. “This is not to happen among you”, said Jesus.
But if greatness is not to be found in position, in power, in possessions, where then is to be found? “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant”. In a single sentence Jesus reverses the values of the world. The world has placed at the top of the list kings, military commanders, the rich, those who have positions of honor and recognition. Behind them come the great masses of humanity, followed at the very end by the servants. Jesus reverses the whole scale of values and says: “The greatest of these are those who serve”.
The word servant today is an unpopular word. Few people wish to serve. Everybody expects to be served. Most people want to lord it over others. Much of the trouble we have today is caused by people who desire to be the greatest – the most honored, he most privileged, the most powerful, the most prosperous, the best paid, the best fed, the best housed.
When some of us get the idea that we are better than others around us, when we get the idea that we are just naturally superior and ordained by God to be first – then trouble really starts – as it started among the disciples: “When the other Disciples heard it, they became angry with James and John”.
Why does the Lord Jesus place so much emphasis on the importance of serving? Why does He place it above position, power, possessions and all else? The answer is that if Christianity is anything, it is love, but love according to Jesus’ spirit, that is to say: love militant, love in action, love going out to serve, love sacrificing itself. These are the characteristics of the love rooted in the love of Christ who “did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.
The greatest example of such humble service, Jesus gave to his Disciples by washing their feet. And after performing this task of slave, He said to them:
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and you are right, for so I am; If I, then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also should wash each other’s feet; I have given you an example, so that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:12-15).
We Christians are called to build a Christian society, starting by a Christian family and a Christian parish. How should be the form of the relations between us in our family and in our parish? There is no other example to follow than Jesus’ example: “I have given you an example, so that you also should do as I have done to you”.
Jesus calls us to be a servant to our spouse in marriage. How many marriages have been wrecked by the desire to command and be obeyed, to be loved instead of to love, to be served instead of to serve, to be understood instead of to understand. How different our marriages would be if we strove after Christ’s kind of greatness: “anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
What a difference being servants would make in our relations with our children! How many young people have risen in rebellion against a childhood lived in the grip of a dictator in the home? A father or a mother who just barked commands, who acted like persecuting attorneys? Who demanded obedience just because of their position in the family? But does the greatness of parents depend on their position in the family, or does it depend rather on their willingness to be servants to their children, to set them an example worthy of respect, to spend time with them, to play with hem, to pray with them, to talk with them, to listen to them, to reason with them, to understand them? “Anyone who wants to become great among you (even as a spouse or parent) must be your servant.”
And in the parish we are also called to serve not to be served. We can here apply the famous “ask not” of John Kennedy: “Ask not what your parish, what your Church, can do to you; rather ask what you can do for your parish, for your Church”. Amen.