19 October 2021, The Tablet

How God reveals himself in the humility of selfless service


How God reveals himself in the humility of selfless service

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples – 19th century engraved illustration from History of the Bible 1883.
Old Books Images / Alamy

“Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.”

Greatness and success, Jesus tells us explicitly, consist in becoming servants and slaves. If that makes us feel uncomfortable, it’s as nothing compared with how uncomfortable (and puzzled) it must have left his first hearers. To an educated, cultured Roman, it would have been an affront to the dignity of a freeborn citizen.

Slavery was a major institution in antiquity. The Code of Hammurabi (c1750BC) included clear and precise provisions about slavery, which it took for granted. In the Greek culture of the Roman world and the social and political milieu of the gospels, slaves were everywhere. Athens in its heyday had about 60,000 slaves. One in three of the population in the later days of the Roman Republic was a slave. There were at least 2,000,000 in the Italian peninsula alone at the end of the Republic, many of them fair-skinned Celts, Germans, and Saxons.

The idea of slavery can be sustained only if you entertain the view that some human beings are essentially inferior to others, an idea with which Aristotle, for one, but also many after him, saw no problem. He says in the first book of the Politics that “Humanity is divided into two, the masters and the slaves…those who have the right to command, and those born to obey,” and “A slave is property with a soul.” There were contrary views, of which he himself was well aware.

The Sophists, for instance, thought slavery had its basis in custom not nature. Later criticisms of slavery by Latin writers, including Christian authors, denounced cruelty to slaves, but not the institution. Even a figure as late as Pope St Leo the Great (d 461AD) decreed that slaves could not be ordained. It took the Emperor Justinian (482-565) to change that particularly benighted proscription.

To be a slave, to be owned as a chattel and treated as an object, to come and go at the will and whim and for the pleasure or use of an owner is, to us, the ultimate indignity.

So, what are we to make of the fact that Jesus explicitly described himself as a slave and a servant? “I am among you as one who serves”, he says; “...the Son of Man came to serve and not to be served”

And to drive the point home, he performed for his disciples the servile gesture of foot washing, reserved to the lowest household slave.

That was no empty, rhetorical gesture: he was pointing to the very meaning of his own life.

In that seemingly servile action, he confronts us with the ultimate paradox: that God, the creator and sustainer of all existence, has revealed, and continues to reveal himself, in the weakness and humility of selfless service.

How does that sit with our own age’s sense of self? Are we any less uncomprehending of mundane, unnoticed, un-newsworthy, personal service? We don't mind serving an institution – a Company, a College, the State or even a Church institution; nor do we mind playing the role of lackey to the great and the good. All of that was perfectly acceptable in the Hellenistic world, too, the world in which Jesus lived.

But that’s service for a reward of one kind or another. In such service as this, there is no risk either to our dignity or our resources: on the contrary, there’s prestige and kudos, and other more tangible returns; and, of course, the distant prospect of a flattering obituary.

But Jesus’ service was to the impoverished, in spirit and body; to the incompetent and confused; to those without influence or reputation; to those unable to repay or reward. And we’re summoned to do the same, otherwise that identity with him that was forged at our baptism and which is renewed and nourished in the Mass, is without meaning.

By inexorable implication, we can’t call ourselves his followers, unless we actually do follow him, by becoming slaves and servants. It’s salutary to remember that until relatively recently, ordained priests were given the tonsure. The tonsure, the Roman tonsure, at least, was made by the removal of a circle of hair (unlike the Celtic tonsure, which was the removal of a strip of hair from ear to ear). The origin of the practice is in slavery: the tonsure was given to Roman slaves, to prevent them from running away: a more benign kind of branding.

And so, it was given to priests, to remind them that their identity with Christ was first and foremost in his role as servant and slave. We all share in the one priesthood of Christ, a priesthood of service. The ongoing debate about who can and who can’t be an ordained priest more often than not centres on the question of equal opportunities for leadership and the exercise of authority.

In this gospel Jesus makes it plain beyond any doubt that the only authority known to the Christian gospel is that which issues in service, δι?κονοι and δο?λοι, the service of servants and slaves. The Christian priesthood – both the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all the faithful – isn’t primarily about leadership but service. Service, of course, takes the form of leadership in some situations, but by no means in all. Jesus demonstrates what in no uncertain terms that service is primarily about washing dirty feet, not ordering someone else to do it. It’s about keeping the flock alive and safe, but also about being at its beck and call, even at risk to one’s own life. When the ambitious brothers, James and John, made it plain that they had set their sights on glory, Jesus pointed them in the direction of service. And it’s only within that perspective that the debate about who can and who can’t be ordained will bear fruit or even make sense

What do you think?


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User comments (1)

Comment by: Rosemary Hayes
Posted: 20/10/2021 12:10:27
'Even a figure as late as Pope St Leo the Great (d 461AD) decreed that slaves could not be ordained'

Interestingly, as late has the fifteenth century, in England, one had to be free and not 'servile' to be ordained. Episcopal registers contain many examples of certificates of manumission entered to prove the free status of an ordinand. So, in some ways, the villein status was regarded as akin to slavery
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