Service above self

Type ‘service above self’ into Google and every web-site which comes up features a Rotary web-site. For Rotary is a ‘service’ club – indeed, it was the world’s first ‘service’ club – set up with the principal purpose of serving others. To quote from the ‘guiding principles’ of Rotary:

The object of Rotary: To encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise and, in particular, to encourage and foster:

  1. The development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service
  2. High ethical standards in business and professions
  3. The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian’s personal, business, and community life
  4. The advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.

I wonder how many Rotarians are aware that their motto of ‘service above self’ is rooted in the teaching of Jesus – and that without Jesus this concept of service would perhaps never have gained traction? Most people fail to realise the extent to which our culture has been Christianised, and that even although we now live in a post-Christian society, our language still reflects Christian values. In the UK we speak, for instance, of ‘civil servants’, while our most prominent politicians are called ‘ministers’ (from the Latin for ‘servant’); and the most powerful person in the land is called ‘the prime minister’: i.e. the ‘chief servant’!

Today, a ‘servant heart’ is deemed to be admirable, but until Jesus came the idea of serving others was not a commonly admired virtue. As far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, serving others was undignified and not worthy of any man with real spunk – rather we should simply serve our own desires. In spite of the Old Testament teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself, the Jews of Jesus’ day were scarcely more positive about serving others: for them serving was simply a way of gaining ‘Brownie points’ from God – and even so, it was felt to be wrong to serve one’s inferiors.

Jesus, however, reversed all human ideas of greatness and rank. Service for Jesus was the place of true greatness: “The greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant” (Luke 22.26: see Mark 10.42 and Matthew 20.25-27). As James Edwards commented:

“At no place do the ethics of the kingdom of God clash more vigorously with the ethics of the world than in the matters of power and service. The ideas that Jesus presents regarding rule and service are combined in a way that finds no obvious precedent in either the OT or Jewish tradition. In a decisive reversal of values, Jesus speaks of greatness in service rather than greatness of power, prestige and authority…. The pre-eminent virtue of God’s kingdom is not power, not even freedom, but service…. The pre-eminence of service in the kingdom of God grows out of Jesus’ teaching on love for one’s neighbour, for service is love made tangible.”

On another occasion Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10.44; similarly Mark 9.35 and Luke 9.48). From the perspective of Jesus’ hearers this was a preposterous idea. To quote Edwards again:

“The idea of a slave being first is as absurdly paradoxical as a camel going through the eye of a needle (Mark 9.25) – and it probably induced smiles and shaking heads from Jesus’ audience. The desire for power and dominance focuses attention on self and this is love, for love by nature is focussed on others.”

Frederick Bruner, another commentator, drew attention to the question of Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, 491E: ‘How can anyone be happy when he is the slave of all?’, and went on:

“Jesus turns this aristocratic ideal on its head, and in one of cultural history’s dramatic reversals he asks, in effect, ‘How can anyone be happy unless one is the slave of everyone else?’ Because culture so ceaselessly directs us in exactly the opposite direction, up, believers must pray almost daily for the wisdom and courage to go culturally down. But seeking to be a great ‘downer’ in all imaginative service and with all created and charismatic ambition is so right that it comes close to being Jesus’ definition of a happy life.”

‘Service above self’ is a quality to be emulated not just by Rotarians, but by all who follow Jesus. In the words of John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as every you can”!

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