The theme of the willing servant matches the missionary ideal perfectly. The ideal missionary is so devoted to the good of the people whom s/he is sent to serve that they plan both their activities and their life-style to match the real needs of those people. There is a huge effort of adaptation and enculturation involved, so that the Gospel can integrate into the lives of the local people. This goes well beyond the initial need to learn the local language, and the most effective symbols to use, so that the message of Jesus can be understood and loved.
In our world, where most of the celebrities highlighted in the media seem motivated by self-interest and self-assertion Jesus’ call to total service seems unrealistic, and, one might think, unlikely to succeed. But today’s Gospel offers the ideal of dedication to the service of others as fundamental to Christian discipleship. Jesus came “not to be served, but to serve” and this example must always be a guiding light for his followers. He went about doing good (cf. Acts 10:38), bringing justice, healing, forgiveness and kindness into people’s lives. This is why those who believe in him are challenged to give themselves, their talents and their time, to the service of others without seeking any other reward than knowing that this is supremely worthwhile. The acted parable of the foot-washing at the Last Supper gives out the same message.
In practice what can we learn from our Lord’s life and actions? He clearly said that he came to do the Father’s will, and this thought stayed with him, even when it led to suffering and a cruel death. He was always about the Father’s business, and made it his business. This prompts us too, with an active sense of duty, and a personal dedication to God’s will for us. Normally, we discover our duty and God’s will for us, not in world-changing plans or in heroic ideals but in the ordinary tasks of each day. At home or in the office, or the school or other workplace, or wherever the activity of the moment calls us, we try to be aware of duty and a sense of dedication. Whenever we work in a slipshod manner, of fail to offer the needed helping hand, we fall below our personal call to service. What a change it would make, if there was a widespread return to this spirit, with regard to people’s daily work. We need to be reminded that in rendering to others the service of a job well done we are imitating the serving Christ and being his fellow-workers in building up the kingdom of God on earth.
It is tempting to be selfish with our time and energy. There are so many plausible excuses for excluding ourselves from the work that needs to be done. How easy to join the many who just live for themselves and let society fend for itself. But today’s Scripture calls us to examine our conscience, and to face the question, “What can I do for my community, rather than what can my community do for me?” It is one of the most basic values we have to keep on learning throughout our lives. The approach of James and John, in today’s Gospel, is not unlike the way many of us come to God. We approach him in prayer with the greatest fervour, whenever we want something for ourselves. Jesus responds to their request with a request of his own, thereby showing that what he wants for us must take priority over what we want for ourselves. The only request worth making is that which he taught us to make, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10.) His will, as expressed in today’s Gospel, is that we should share in his cup and in his baptism, that cup which he was to ask the Father to take from him (Mk 14:36), and that baptism of fire which he knew he had to undergo. His death on the cross was but the final expression of that total service which characterised the whole of his life. Everyday he died to himself, because he lived “not to be served, but to serve.” His life was a daily emptying of self (Phil 2:7), a self-emptying which was only complete when he gave his last breath on the cross The complete missionary!