Saturday, February 25, 2012

Masters, Servants and the Kingdom of God

My wife and I have enjoyed watching the British television series Downton Abbey. The show, for those unfamiliar with it, follows the life of the Crawley family and their servants during the early years of the twentieth century. The series begins at the time of the sinking of the Titanic and ended its second year at the beginning of the 1920s. A third year is currently being produced for release in the UK this fall and, presumably, in the US in 2013.

The show highlights a period of time in which an aristocratic family such as the Crawleys (the Earl and Countess of Grantham, according to the program) lived on large country estates and were attended to by a host of household servants. Downton Abbey depicts aspects of the lives both of the family and of many of their servants, giving us some insight into the differences in life between the upper class and their servants. I do not argue that the program shows exactly how life would have been, especially for the servants, but it certainly gives some good indications of it and clearly demonstrates that significant social and lifestyle differences existed between the servants and their masters and mistresses.

This distinction between servant and master as shown in Downton Abbey came to mind today as I was reading from Luke 12. In verses 35-40 Jesus speaks about the need for servants to be ready for their master's appearance. In the television program we saw regularly how the household staff had to be prepared to respond to the needs and requests of the master and his family at a moment's notice. Failure to do so would have been considered poor work and quite possibly grounds for dismissal.

But my thoughts were particularly captured by verse 37, which in the latest NIV translation reads:

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.”

I had never noticed the aspect of this verse that I have highlighted here. Did you catch it? Speaking of his kingdom and the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus describes a situation in which the roles are reversed. The master, who would normally be dressed and waited upon by the servants, dresses himself, seats the servants at the table and waits on them. This is radical. I cannot imagine that this would have ever happened in an aristocratic household in our world. In Downton Abbey the Crawley family strives to treat their servants well, but they certainly never reverse roles with them. In fact, in one episode the servants are given time off on Christmas Day to celebrate among themselves, leaving the family to serve its own drinks and care for themselves for several hours. One visitor, a very wealthy businessman, complains about this state of affairs because he considers it beneath himself to have to serve himself in any way, especially while the servants are allowed time to make merry. His response strikes me as far more common in our world. The powerful, the elite, the masters demand to be waited upon and the servants do the waiting. But not in God's kingdom.

If we pray for, long for and strive to see God's kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, what does a verse like this imply for the way we live? Certainly it tells us something of the amazing relationship between ourselves and the Master, God and that in itself is worth reflecting upon. We are to be formed into the image of the Master ourselves, so what does this mean concerning how we live on a daily basis, especially those of us from the West who have long been in the position of master rather than servant on a global scale. What does it mean in terms of our churches, our social organizations and our families? Are we willing to step down from our position of master, whether it be master in our family, in our workplace, in our church or anywhere else, and serve those whom we normally expect to serve us? (And are we even aware that we have such expectations?)   

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