Dress-Up Servants

There’s a house in Ireland, on the grounds of Cahir Castle, that is known as The Swiss Cottage. It has nothing at all to do with Switzerland, but the name sounds exotic and foreign and I’m pretty sure Switzerland doesn’t mind. It was actually designed by a famous English architect (who also designed parts of Buckingham Palace) for a powerful Irish Earl in the early 1800’s. It was made as a cottage orné, a style that imitated and idealised the homes of the poor, while still retaining the comforts of the wealthly. The Earl and his family and friends could escape from their large castle to the fanciful cottage for a picnic or party, and for a while pretend that they were like simple peasants, like the peasants who worked their large estates. They even went so far as to dress up for the part sometimes, or perhaps it’s more proper to say that they dressed down, into the clothes of the common people. Nearby, an underground tunnel meant that actual peasants could come and go from a hidden basement kitchen without being seen, until they were called upon to serve their masters, who were pretending to be like their own servants in the garden. Can you imagine being one of those servants, watching powerful lords and ladies playing dress-up in servant’s clothes, while still making you do all the actual work? If the walls of that underground kitchen could talk, I’d imagine they could repeat a few choice words. The Earl and his family may have dressed the same way as the servants, but there was still a big difference: the real servants served. The pretend servants didn’t.

When Jesus left the throne of heaven to live among us, he did not come like the Earl and his family visiting their cottage orné. There was no secret tunnel, no dress-up, no play-acting. The High King of Heaven came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Not under compulsion, but willingly, generously, joyfully knowing what his service would accomplish. Near the end of his life, he even stooped to wash between the dirty toes of a dozen common tradesmen. Then he told them (and us) to imitate him—to love others by serving them selflessly like he did. He said, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.”

Jesus showed us that his kingdom runs opposite to the kingdoms of Earth. It is a kingdom where greatness is not measured by how many people serve you, but by how you serve people. Most followers of Christ hear the language of service and agree that this is right. Still, sometimes we end up trying to blend the two approaches into one—trying to find a way to be served while still convincing ourselves and others that really we are the servants. Like the Earl and his family, we might put on a pretty good show. We might look the part, from a distance. But up close, the reality cannot be hidden: a real servant works hard for others. A real servant does not draw attention to how servant-like they look. They will keep working even when their service is hidden away in an underground tunnel. A real servant serves.

If Jesus had been at the Swiss Cottage, he would have been more like the people working in the kitchen than the nobles play-acting above them. And are we comfortable sitting in dress-up servant’s clothes, snapping our fingers at him for drinks and hors d’oeuvre on the lawn?

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