Last week was a frenzied activity for thousands of wannabes vying for the top national and local positions in the county. Many trooped to the office of the Commission of Elections (COMELEC) around the country, complete with each one’s colorful gimmick and band of loyal followers, to file their candidacies for the National and Local elections come May 2019. It look like a circus rather than an ordinary and formal submission of form for candidacy. As they say, only in the Philippines, election–its more fun in the Philippines!
And what was the buzzword of most of the candidates? You guessed it right–its service! Each candidate promised that they will serve up to the last breath of their lives. No, they are not after money, power, politics, influence or status, it’s all in the name of service. Can’t help but wonder, if it is really for service and not for the money, power and position, would you think there would be thousands filing their candidacies? I guess not.
In fairness, we cannot judge nor question the thousands of candidates’ desire to serve. There is probably a genuine desire in each of the candidates to serve. Unfortunately this genuine desire is tainted by the distorted and bankrupt values and standards of this world. Moreover, their notion of service is antithetical to the notion of service that Jesus speaks of in the gospel today.
The liturgical readings for today’s 29th Sunday in ordinary time talks about service–God’s way of service, that is. The First Reading is taken from the fourth servant song of Second Isaiah: the prophet sings of one who “gives his life as an offering”. This suffering servant would be afflicted, would suffer, and would even bear guilt. No wonder these verses from the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant is also the reading on Good Friday. It foreshadow the fullness of the servanthood accepted by Jesus on our behalf: he gave his life for us.
In the second reading. the Letter to the Hebrews declares that we have a “great” “high” priest in Jesus who was strangely compassionate, fragile, and subject to the very trials we abhor.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.”
In the Gospel, James and John wanted to sit alongside Jesus when he comes to his glory: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus teaches them this lesson: “whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all” . “The Way” on which he is leading his disciples is not about earthly glory but about service, even suffering service. This way of relating to others is not the way of the world, where “those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and make their authority over them felt.” The term “lord it over” is a vivid way of describing leadership as raw power.
Jesus’ words for describing service are conveyed by Mark in the humblest words in the Greek language for lowdown menial service. The term “servant,” diakonos, literally means “the one who waits on tables.”
“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant [dia-konos];
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave [doulos] of all.”
Jesus finally drives his point home by applying to himself the atonement language of Isaiah’s portrait of the Suffering Servant in the first reading
“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In many ways we are like James and John and the other disciples. Just like James and John we behave as normal citizens of a world where the ordinary view of service is one who lord it over people and make their authority over them felt.
Service is not the normal way of the world. Authority, leadership, ambition is. Service is such a much spoken word but so much lacking in practice. Admit it, when you are in a position, leadership or honor, whether in government, church, business, civic organization, or non-profit organization, the normal tendency in the world is that you are not a servant. You are to be served, you are to be bestowed with honor, you are to be granted privileges. All those talk about servant-leadership, they are beautiful to the ears, but in the real world, whoever is in position, authority and power, their members and their subjects are the ones serving them.
Unless the dominant system of benefiting the poor and powerful prevails, service will remain antithetical to the Christian way of service. To live the Christian way of service is to go against the strong tide of giving weight to power, authority and wealth in the world.
So how then can we practice service in a world that is antithetical to service? Just like the saying–to err is human, to forgive is divine–authority and leadership is human, service is divine. Service is the way of God towards us and towards God’s inner life. Service is the relationship of God with each other in the Divine Trinity. Service, therefore, is God’s gift, God’s grace. We cannot do service, without divine grace. We cannot do service without following Jesus–the greatest example of one who came not to be served but to serve. The cup that Jesus drank, we can drink, and the baptism with which Jesus was baptized, we were baptized, but we can only lived out true service, not on our own, but through Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus.
Service is the way of life in the kingdom of God. Service is a prerequisite to entering the kingdom. We cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we learn how to serve. When we come to God’s kingdom, only then that we can experience the fullness of service. In God’s kingdom, we will be focused on the other, serving each other, just like God.
Despite that the fullness of service will only come at the end, we can already have a foretaste of its fullness here and now, even in a hostile world. In God’s grace.