Friends, Not Servants
Thoughts on the First Readings -Joe Frankenfield
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
People tell us from the altar and in religious books that good Christians serve God. They issue calls to pray and take part in various ritual activities; less often they urge us to obey divine prohibitions and carry out task of love and justice. The message is idiomatic Christian teaching generating little disquiet. Christianity’s servant language presents difficulties, however.
Servants provide their masters needed benefit. The two form a mutually dependent relationship. God neither needs nor wants anything from us for himself. We aren’t God’s servants. Understanding this reveals the gratuity of our Creator’s love.
Furthermore, folks dedicate themselves most wholeheartedly to projects they freely choose. We’ve an innate desire to be free, to choose our destiny and path.
Regardless of how nicely someone packages them, we will never follow external laws with the same enthusiasm with which we pursue internal desires. In that case, servant language used in our relationship with God makes life in God’s Spirit more difficult.
Another problem with presenting Christian behavior as a command given to underlings either directly by God or mediated through human spokesmen is that, sooner or later the because-I-said-so approach engenders resentment in those being told what to do. It engenders a search for ways around God’s will or for the least bothersome interpretation of his will rather than the realization that the divine will is inseparable from God’s loving act of creation.
Servant language hides the practical reasons behind rules, prohibitions and directives that we ascribe to God. Love your neighbor seeks to strengthen the community we need to survive and thrive. Don’t lie protects the reliability of speech: a basic building block of community. Love your enemy makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible. It keeps us connected to those we harm as well as those who harm us. Again, it protects community: the womb of our shared future.
Servant language seeks to promotes realism. Life makes either-or demands. A careless person falling off a thousand foot cliff dies. A person hoarding wealth when others are in need, causes real people real harm; he increases our world’s chaos. A master’s command to his servant is non-negotiable. Only by knowing, respecting and cooperating with God can we realize our human promise. But servant language makes its point in a way that tends to keep us immature and resentful rather that adult and cooperative with the world and the world’s Creator.
Maybe this is why at the last supper John the Evangelist has Jesus telling his followers, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” It’s been over 2000 years now. It’s time.