Servants or Friends?

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Jesus had it backwards. He was always turning things upside down. The poor, not the rich, would inherit the Kingdom. The hungry would be the ones who in the end would be satisfied. He was always inverting things like this. He told His eager, ambitious followers that servanthood, not leadership ability, was the measure of greatness in God's order of things. "The greatest among you is the servant of all," He declared. Once again He had reversed the conventional order. And so it would be. Those who followed Him would become known as Christ-ones, the people who had it backward. Their highest vision of the Christian purpose would be to reverse the order and fulfill a mission of service. They would follow the example of their Servant-leader and wash each other's feet. They would serve rather than rule, act as servants rather than lords.

Over time, however, a problem developed with their dedication to Christian service. The Crusaders, in their zeal to convert, thought they were servants of Christ. And likewise the Conquistadors. But they really didn't have it backwards. Like many others who are zealous for right causes, they used the idea of servanthood to conquer, rule and dominate others in Christ's name. They had Christ backwards. It is not enough, therefore, to ask whether someone says he or she is serving Christ. There are bad servants as well as good servants. The critical issue may be understanding the difference. A good servant must really have it backwards. He can't use the imperatives of mission and service to dominate and control.

Today it seems much easier to distinguish the good servants from the bad. The media helps us make that distinction. Bad servants are crooked politicians, profiteers who use friendship to separate seniors from their savings, preachers who fleece their flocks for personal gain. But our good servants seem clearly to help, care, and cure rather than conquer, exploit and control. They are doctors, teachers, social workers, professors, lawyers, ministers - the professionals who serve. Our society has even made these good servants, the helping professionals, the economic base of the nation. In GNP terms, nearly two-thirds of our employed people now produce service. We have become an economy of servants. Instead of a nation of conquistadors, we are a nation of servers.

As Christians we could celebrate the institutionalization of the good servant. Ours is finally a society of caring, helping, curing servanthood. We laud the value of professional servanthood and pay for it generously. It would be interesting to know, however, what Christ might see in our society of servants, given His tendency toward getting things backwards. Would He still have it backwards? Would He even reject a society of good servants?

The answer is, probably not, unless He saw good servants becoming lords. Probably not, unless He saw help becoming control or care becoming commercialized. On the other hand, if He found servants caught up in commercialized systems of control, He would certainly insist that we still had it backwards - that our servanthood had become lordship. The question, then, is whether we are a nation of good servants or lords of commercialized systems of service that attempt to exert control.

I wonder if the reality of humanness will always make servanthood into lordship. It may be that there is no way to define service in order to keep from getting it backwards and making it a system of control. With all our Christian devotion to the idea of service, could it be that service is an inadequate ideal - a value so easily corrupted that we should question its usefulness?

At the Last Supper, Christ was telling the disciples those things of greatest importance. It was His final opportunity to communicate the central values of the faith. "No longer do I call you servants," He said, "For the servant does not know what the master is doing. I call you friends for all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you."

Finally, Christ said you are not servants. You know the Father's heart. You know the inside story. You are friends.

Perhaps beyond the revolutionary Christian mandate of service is the final revolution - the possibility of being friends. Friends are people who know each other, who care, respect, struggle, and are committed through time. Christ's mandate to be friends is a revolutionary idea in our serving society. Why friends rather than servants? Perhaps it is because He knew that servants could always become lords but that friends could not. Professional servants may operate on the assumption "You will be better because I know better," but friends believe "We will be better because we share in each others' lives." Servants are people who know the mysteries that can control those to whom they give "help." Friends are people who know each other. They are free to give and receive help from each other.

Here we are, a nation of professional servers, following Christ's mandate to serve. And here He is, at the final moment, getting it backwards once again. The final message is not to serve. Rather, He directs us to be friends.

Adapted from the essay "On the Backwardness of Prophets" in John McKnight's penetrating book: The Careless Society - Community and Its Counterfeits, BasicBooks, 1995.

Bob Lupton

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