The Nature of Discipleship
Today’s passage is a difficult one. Right away, we’re not comfortable with the language of slaves and masters. Jesus’ story about the slave seems harsh. What is Jesus saying? Is he saying that we should treat those who work for us harshly? Is he saying that everyone in inferior positions should just keep their heads down and do as they’re told?
We shouldn’t generalize this to apply to every situation. It’s not a license for bosses to abuse and exploit their employees. It doesn’t mean you should just accept any treatment from your bosses or superiors.
In today’s story, Jesus is talking to his disciples. He is talking about the nature of discipleship. He is telling them what their attitude should be when they serve others.
This is what he said:
Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ (Luke 17:9-10)
He is telling his disciples that when you serve, don’t think that you’re something special. Don’t expect gratitude or recognition. Just do what you need to do because that’s what you should do. Serve simply for the sake of serving, because that is what you should do. We have done only what we ought to have done!
This is how Jesus lived his life. It was how he saw himself, and it was what he did.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve… (Mark 10:45)
Jesus did not serve others to make himself feel more special. He did not seek recognition or appreciation. He simply served. He lifted others up. His service was humble. He tried to teach his disciples to serve in the same way.
Near the end of his life, this what he did and said:
Jesus… got up from supper, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him… After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had reclined again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:3-5, 12-14)
The disciples had so much to learn about humble service. They all wanted recognition. They wanted to feel special for serving others. They argued among themselves who was the greatest. They wanted to enjoy the status of being alongside Jesus. They asked Jesus if they could be at his right hand and left hand in glory.
Jesus was completely different. He didn’t seek any benefit from others. He didn’t weigh or calculate who was worth his time and who was not. He just did what he believed he ought to do. He simply served. When I look at his life, he lived the most beautiful kind of life. I think that a life serving others is the most beautiful way to live life.
At some level, we all wish we could be that way too. If it was easy, I think we all would. The fact is, serving others is not easy. When we serve, people don’t appreciate it. They don’t respond to what we do. Many times, people just don’t care. If anything, you end up getting criticism and complaints. So we start to ask, why am I doing this?
Life is busy enough trying to stay afloat. There is very little time and energy left after taking care of my responsibilities. Why should I spend what little is left over to serve others when no one even appreciates it?
The easy thing to do is to forget about serving and just live for myself. The world is full of ways to enjoy and live for yourself. The pleasures of life are endless. The whole economy caters to our pleasures. We can literally spend our whole lives pursuing pleasure. I mean, it’s great to enjoy life’s pleasures. God has given us wonderful ways to enjoy life. But we drown in a sea of pleasure and we can’t get out.
Sometimes, we serve out of duty and obligation. I think it’s better to do this than do nothing at all. But there is a danger when you serve only out of duty and obligation. The danger is self-righteousness. When duty and obligation are the driving forces of your actions, self-righteousness is a great trap. It inflates your sense of worth. You begin to think you are special. Self-righteousness demands affirmation and gratitude from others.
It demands praise and recognition.
Serving should bridge relationships and restore the gap between people. That is what Jesus did. By serving others, Jesus restored their place in the community. Those who had been outcasted, he healed and brought back in.
The Antidote to Self-Righteousness
But when self-righteousness is at the root of your service, it does not bring together, it divides and separates. It separates you and creates distance from those you’re serving. You elevate yourself by putting yourself above others. You elevate yourself by putting others down. It creates distance. Self-righteousness is not humble. Self-righteousness makes you a smaller person with a small heart.
The antidote to self-righteousness is love. When love is the root of service, it does not require praise and affirmation from others. Love serves simply for the sake of serving. Serving becomes the extension of love. Serving is love in action. Jesus served out of love.
The reason we cannot serve like Jesus is because our love is so small. Because our love is so small, we cannot serve just for the sake of serving. Because we don’t have love, we need affirmation, positive response and results to drive us. They become our fuel.
The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith.
“Increase our faith!”
They said this when they saw just how small their faith was. This was also the response of the man whose son was sick. When he asked Jesus to heal his son, Jesus said that anything is possible for those who believe. In response, he said this:
“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
The journey of faith begins when we see how small our faith is. That recognition is the necessary precondition to genuine faith. It is humble awareness of the reality of my lack of faith. In the same manner, the beginning of learning to serve others is to recognize how small our love is.
Vastness of Love
I think many of us know how small our love is. Humble awareness is not the issue – we’re too aware! But we make that an excuse to do nothing. We don’t believe we’re equipped or adequate enough to serve others. We don’t believe we have the heart to serve.
Giving up is not the answer. When we see our inadequacy, we want to run away. Don’t run away.
Just like how the disciples proclaimed, “increase our faith!”, our cry must be “increase our love!”. I see how small my love is. Increase my love! I’ve made this an excuse to do nothing. Increase my love! I have become self-righteous. Increase my love! Instead of serving, I have striven for praise and affirmation. Increase my love!
Genuine spiritual life is to experience the overwhelming vastness of God’s love. It is to see how small our love is compared to the infinite size of God’s love. Spirituality is an encounter with that much bigger love and being drawn into that greater orbit of God’s love. It is to be taken into a world that is much greater than the one I presently live in. This is what St.Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. He had been driven by self-righteousness. He elevated himself by pressing others down. But when he met Christ, he saw how small his love was, and how great God’s love was. His blinders of self-righteousness fell off and he entered God’s much greater world of love. With this love, he ran the race serving others.
The love we have is so small. But the good news is that just like the tiny mustard seed, God takes our small love and multiplies it. In faith, we give that tiny little love we have in our hearts and give it to God. God takes it, waters it, makes it grow, and lets it flourish. We don’t even notice it. As it grows, service naturally flows out of us.
Love and Multiply
Jesus shared a parable about the time of judgment. He tells the righteous to stand at his right hand, because they fed him when he was hungry, gave water when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, visited him in prison and took care of him when he was sick. The righteous responded this way:
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25:37-39)
They did not even know they were serving. The love in their hearts just spilled out naturally into their everyday lives. Serving others became like breathing.
From love comes a life of service. Our prayer should always be: Take whatever small love I have, oh Lord, and multiply it. Seek this love. Pray for it. Cry out for it. Then our lives will become rich and abundant.
There is a lot of hurt around us. We remember the indigenous children who were taken away from their families. We remember those suffering from mental health challenges and isolation. We remember those struggling under financial strain. We remember those suffering with illness.
Live a beautiful life of serving others. Make room in your life with love. Oh Lord, increase our love!