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When the king becomes a servant

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Once upon a time, a Bishop was preaching in a Cathedral. Everybody listened and applauded spontaneously but when he said, “I am your humble servant,” the congregation went into a deep quiet as if they were in a cemetery. Some of his listeners wondered why the Bishop should call himself a servant because they could not reconcile the concept of “Bishop servant” to their original concept of Episcopal leadership. After all, the Bishop has a driver, a cook, a dry cleaner, a secretary and everybody calls him, “My Lord.” The Bishop was uneasy. Could it be that the people did not believe him or that they did not understand him? Could it be that his actions in practical life contradict his words? Could it be that his relationship with people negates the principle of service? Has he clouded his vocation to service with a faulty and Machiavellian authority? He needed to find out through a thorough examination of conscience. At last, he decided that he would give a full lecture on leadership, with the theme: “Who is a Servant?”

The Bishop started his research from his domestic workers. “Why did the people react the way they did when I said, “I am your humble servant?” he asked! One of them responded, “My Lord, a Bishop is greater than any President of a country. He is God’s representative on earth. He is another Christ and he has the fullness of the priesthood. So, how can he be a servant?” Then the Bishop asked, “If I take care of you and remain available to you, do you take that as services?” One of the workers responded, “My Lord you are really helping us. Even those who are not Christians come to you and you help them.” Then the Bishop asked, “Is that not service?” The worker responded, “That is service, My Lord, but you are not a servant.” It became clear to the Bishop that many people had grown up to perceive a Bishop only as a venerable monarch no matter the level of his humility. It became clear to the Bishop that service and servant do not mean the same thing to people. He was happy that the reaction was not caused by the action of his daily life. So he could proceed with the lecture to a wider audience.

On the day of the lecture on leadership, the Bishop asked: “What is the name of a person who drives a vehicle?” A woman answered, “Driver”. “A person who works in the farm is called what?” A young man answered, “Farmer”. Next was the real question, “A person who renders services is called what?” An old man responded, “Servant”. The Bishop continued: “Is a Bishop a servant when he renders services by preaching, working in the office, building schools, giving scholarship to those who cannot afford money for education, giving free medical services to the sick who cannot afford hospital bills?” There was silence! Suddenly an elderly couple who had benefitted immensely from the Bishop stood up almost in tears, “My wife and I testify that if not for you, our children would have been roaming the streets by now! If not for you, by now we would have died of starvation but it is difficult to call you a servant because you are our father.

The Bishop paused and resumed the conversation. The Pope is the servant of the servants. Some people were not comfortable seeing Jesus as a servant (Mark 10, 45) so they wanted to make him a king by force but he escaped and withdrew into the mountains (John 6, 15). While some people enjoyed hero-worship, Jesus refused to be an earthly king saying, “I came not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20, 28). Some people identify service with servitude. The Bishop is not a political godfather whom the party members address as “My Leader,” only because of material rewards. The leader must live out his or her name. If you are called a “Reverend Father,” be a father to your followers, if you are called a “Bishop,” be a shepherd to the people. “His Lordship” does not mean “lord it over them” with authority. Rather it means, show them the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The world is used to the dictionary definition of “servant” where a domestic servant is somebody who works in a household for wages, food and lodging. House maids and boys fall into this category. This also involves all house keepers. A public servant is one who works for the public. The police, soldiers and members of the fire service fall into this category. However, the Old Testament identifies servant with kingship. King David is called “my servant whom I have chosen” (Psalm 89, 20). Prophets were also regarded as, “My servant the Prophet” (Jeremiah 26, 5; 44, 4). The servant in a biblical sense portrays the king and the prophet as human beings called and chosen to serve God and humanity. Prophet Isaiah uses the word, servant in a communal sense: “You Israel my servant” (Isaiah 4, 8) to indicate that the servants were the people of Israel. This embodies an idea of the mission of Israel to the world as the institution of their collective history.

Prophet Isaiah identifies the servant as a person who is uniquely called by God to promote justice, love and peace. “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have sent my spirit upon him; he will bring fair judgment to the nations. He is not heard in the street; he does not break the crushed reed or snuff the faltering wick. Faithfully, he presents fair judgment; he will not grow faint, he will not be crushed until he has established fair judgment on the earth, and the coasts and the islands are waiting for his instructions” (Isaiah 42, 1-4). In this context, kings and prophets represent a leader with the virtues of justice, humility, courage and wisdom to give instruction to the nations. Above all, “the leader servant” must depend on God for guidance and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The servant takes positive risks trusting that his or her strength is in God (Isaiah 49, 5).

Peter applied the title “servant” to Jesus. “You are Israelites and it is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, who has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3, 13). Paul exhorts servants (apostles) and those who work for God never to do anything except in the name of Jesus such is service rendered to God. Paul exalts the Colossians saying, whatever your work is; put your heart in it as if it were for the Lord and not for men, knowing that the Lord will repay you by making you his heirs. It is Christ the Lord you are serving (Colossians 3, 24).

We could compare the relationship of the servant (Prophet) and Israel with that which exists between Jesus and the Church. Jesus is the servant who brings Israel to fullness. The Church is the body of Christ, and every Christian is a member of that body. The Bishop is a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7, 17). St Augustine said in one of his sermons: Today, by the graces and mercy of God, your Bishop is ordained, and therefore, we must say something to exhort ourselves, to instruct him, and you. What must first be understood by one who is set over the people is that he is the servant of many. He must not disdain this, he must not, I say, disdain to be the servant of many, for the Lord of lords did not disdain to serve us. So a servant is a person who serves irrespective of position and title. (Cf. Cornelius A. Omonokhua, The Joy of Service; Dialogue of Action, Kaduna, Virtual Insignia, 2015, Page 1-4). If a political leader in any nation work for the common good as a servant, that nation would be a heaven on earth. We can have leaders who would be servants if our votes count! May Nigerians cooperate with God through credible elections to move the nation to a level where everybody would smile again!

Fr. Omonokhua is the director of Mission and Dialogue, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja.


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