The notion of service, generosity, giving to others lies at the heart of not just Christmas, but of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. The word and work of Jesus is about loving others as God first loves us: with generous abandon, holistically, unconditionally, across all false-barriers of our identity differences, in word, deed and action. Love enacted towards others, towards ourselves and towards God is what we call generosity and service.
Jesus calls his followers to be servants, or slaves. The word in ancient Koiné Greek is “δοῦλος” which means simultaneously slave and servant. Jesus thus calls all those who discover, taste, glimpse and give themselves to the love of God to pay it forward, to extend it, to respond to it through service and generosity.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the [other] ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Ironically when we look at today’s culture the word service, which came from the Latin word for slavery “servus” now seems to have nearly a different definition and meaning. It’s more of a quid pro quo, what we deserve or pay for, what we expect or demand, what we can yelp or michelin rate.
- The action of helping or doing work for someone else
- an act of assistance, ie. a helping hand, lending a hand, a favor
- assistance or advice given to customers during and after the sale of goods.”they aim to provide better quality of service“
- the action or process of serving food and drinks to customers.”they complained of poor bar service“
- a period of employment with a company or organization; ie. “he retired after 40 years’ service“
- a periodic routine inspection and maintenance of a vehicle or other machine; ie. “he took his car in for service“
- the armed forces .plural noun: services; plural noun: the services; i.e.. ”troops from all branches of the services“
Jesus calls us to gratuitously generous living, not to foolishness and naivety, but to service not just as power but as life. His mitzvah teaching is a radical re-intepretation of life and power dynamics; a reversal of how we define greatness, how we express importance and how we jockey for position in the race of life.
A recently published secular book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives our Success, author Adam Grant gets sociologically at the teaching of Jesus. Ironically when we work and aim for success professionally, vocationally or relationally we often see other people as obstacles of our success. Jealous, fear, a sense of competition and envy cloud our connected society, they dominate our vision of the collective pond in which we all swim and live. Grant proves through his research that is we serve others, are generous with our times, talents and treasures (but not in a door-mat, what I’d call a gospel negating, sort of way) that we actually have more success in life.
This vision of others as obstacles or competition is more blatantly visible during the holiday season. Think of the physical fighting over Black Friday deals which lead to deaths each year. Think of the riot that occurred last year at Harbor House here in Oakland when goods were being distributed for free. Think of the way in which drivers and shoppers seem to become more aggressive and short-fused during December. Our commercialized celebration of the promise of the incarnation: God taking on flesh, becoming like us, so that we might, through faith, become like God; negates and reorients everything at the heart of this celebration. Is it any wonder that many discern the need to prepare for Christmas? And I’m not talking about shopping, house cleaning or cookie making. Any and everything that is marketed as old school, slow food or slow life, or back to basics sells like crazy. We all want to access that promise, potential and purpose at the heart of the gospel story of Christmas.
How are you struggling to be generous or a servant in the tugging pull of competition, busyness and jealousy of everyday life and the rat rate of December?
Prepare spiritually by acting:
A way to combat this vision of everything and everyone else as an obstacle to our success and happiness is to love randomly, to practice generosity and service with abandon. Do something unexpected, unearned, un-asked-for this week for someone else. Do this random act of kindness for someone you know, or a stranger that by chance you’ve encountered. Give a larger than normal tip. Pick up someone else’s bill for a coffee or tea. Pay the bridge toll for the car behind you in line. Help someone else by picking up something they’ve dropped in a store, or carry someone’s groceries out to their car.
It’s in encountering someone else through service and generosity that we unshackle ourselves from the constraining vision of others as obstacles and competition, and open ourselves to the truth that we are all connected.