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Spiritual Reflection – Pentecost 7

Spiritual Reflection – Service

The teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority is unambiguous. It is to be a matter not of domination but of service. This is a very challenging idea, since our understanding of how authority works is shaped by the secular environment in which we have been reared. The person in authority is, first of all, the boss. The rest of us are obliged to do what the boss wants, in small matters as well as in those that are more important. As a result, bosses get what they want and enjoy high status; we do what we are told and keep to our proper place. 

It is very easy to superimpose the rhetoric of service on this secular model of authority. In part, this is because most of us have never had servants. And we certainly haven’t had slaves over whom we exercise the power of life and death. And so, those in authority redefine service in a manner that suits their preferred style of acting. For the rest of us, it is very hard to see that servants should signify their status by gold and jewellery and sumptuous garments—to say nothing of palaces and limousines. Such symbols of worldly status are in stark opposition to the precepts of the Gospel.

I would have thought that the ideal servant would be one who is generous and self-forgetful in giving; humble and gracious in receiving. A servant is one who is ready to stand on the side, awaiting a summons to serve. A first-class server is attentive, watching and listening, ready to act when someone is in need of their help. Helping because of others’ need, not because of their own need to do so or to be seen to do so. 

The servant-disciple is not like the Pharisee who puts loads on others’ backs and does not lift a finger to help them. I am truly a servant if by my intervention the lives of others are made easier. As a result of my action, the other should walk away happier. 

Sometimes the service that needs to be rendered is the offering of advice or correction. My first abbot used to insist that this will work only if persons in authority have a solid history of genuine concern for the welfare of the other. A word to the wise suggesting a change will probably find a welcome only if, over time, it has been preceded by ten words of affirmation and encouragement and love.

Michael Casey. Balaam’s Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year. (Collegevile, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2019), p. 376.

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