What can Jesus teach us about service and honor?

Many stumble when they realize the suffering that a mission from God entails. Some of the greatest prophets tried to talk God out of their call, and in this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus himself struggles to overcome his distress. John recounts Jesus’ turmoil in a multilayered soliloquy that touches on the true meaning of service and honor. Any who wish to honor Jesus must serve his mission with their lives. As the Father lifted Jesus up, so God will honor Jesus’ servants and through them bring many to new life.


‘The Father will honor whoever serves me’
(Jn 12:26)

Liturgical day
Fifth Sunday of Lent (B)
Jer 31:31-34, Ps 51, Heb 5:7-9, Jn 12:20-33

What do you hope to see as you come to Christ?

What have you seen as you have served Christ’s mission?

Honor from above is not the expected outcome of a life of service, a truth well illustrated in the television series “Downton Abbey.” Early in the first season, when a high-ranking duke comes to visit the Crawley family, a substantial group shows up at the door to welcome him. This group includes not just the Crawleys themselves, but all their maids, valets and footmen. The duke exchanges courtesies with the family, but pays no attention to the servants, who stand silently throughout the reception. The duke offers them no greeting and gives them no thanks for their welcome. At the end of the reception, when a particular servant is addressed, he responds as briefly as possible and avoids eye-contact throughout the interchange. The scene is a blunt illustration of the hierarchy that pervaded aristocratic households of the day. Servants honored members of the upper class with no expectation of reciprocity.

Although the practices would have been different, the hierarchical culture of Jesus’ day included similar structures of authority and honor. Slaves expected no return for the honor they paid their masters. Comparable expectations governed relations within families or between teachers and disciples. Honor was a duty that those “below” paid to those “above.”

This sense of duty is probably behind the request of the Greek pilgrims in today’s Gospel, who asked to see the teacher and offer him words of honor. They reach Jesus at a critical moment, as he realizes the full implications of the mission he accepted. In that realization, Jesus also comprehends the role his disciples will have to fulfill. Those who wish to “see” him must live as he does. It is not enough to gaze on Jesus or hear his words. To “see” Jesus, one must accept the same mission from the Father: to live as the servant of all and to show and trust in God’s love even unto death. When Jesus said, “Where I am, my servant will also be,” he was describing a life of Gospel proclamation as well as a death on the cross.

Throughout John’s Gospel, the Father’s greatest desire is to bring the world to new life. Jesus served the Father by accepting this mission, and the Father honored this service with new life in the resurrection. But just as a seed, in death, ultimately produces an abundance of new seeds, so Jesus, in death, produced an abundance of new servants of the Father’s life-giving mission. Turning worldly expectations on their head, God will honor those disciples who serve Jesus’ mission. This is what Jesus tried to explain to the pilgrims in today’s Gospel. Any who wish to “see” him must remain at his side through life and death.

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