There is a tendency for us to define ourselves by what we do, and not by what we are. ‘What do you do?’ is not just the Queen’s favourite question; it is part of ordinary small talk. To a certain extent, what we do does indeed define what we are. The woman who rescues someone is a rescuer; the man who robs someone is a robber. What we do makes us what we are. But at the same time, what we are has a certain priority over what we do. The man who steals is a thief, but he is more than a thief to begin with, and even after the theft he can become something more. He can become a forgiven thief, a restorer of stolen goods.
This temptation to prize doing over being manifests itself in our words. We start to use the word ‘useful’ as a synonym for ‘good’. We say, ‘I hope you find this useful’ when what we mean is ‘I hope this is good for you’.
An overemphasis on our actions leads us to prize our jobs. People are proud of being a manager, a supervisor, a boss, a director. Indeed the term ‘manager’ has mostly been emptied of its original meaning because of euphemistic overusage. And it is overused precisely because rank and status are confused with our identity, and because they are prized.
No one wants to be the lackey, the understudy, the peon. The mistake is to think that important jobs make us important people. They do not. Nor does the lack of such importance make us unimportant. The mistake is to believe that one is either a somebody or one is a nobody.
A similar confusion exists in the Gospels. The rulers among the Gentiles, Jesus says, lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over the lesser ones. The exercise of power to serve one’s ends, no matter how good, is often a bad thing. But worse is the desire for power as an end in itself. The desire to be a lord – a signor – is a misplaced desire. St Catherine of Siena wrote to a particularly pompous prince, saying, ‘You desire lordship (signoria) over others, but have no lordship over yourself.’ There is no point in ‘managing’ other people when we cannot even ‘manage’ ourselves properly. And good intentions cannot justify our bossiness; in fact it is a greater corruption to boss people around out of good intentions, because we will then make good look evil, and portray love as something hateful and hateworthy.
Jesus offers himself as a model for his disciples. The Son of Man ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’. The words he uses here mean ‘for many’, in Greek, hoi polloi – for the riff-raff, the general rank and file of humanity. Indeed it is for ‘the many’ that Jesus sheds his Precious Blood, as the new translation of the Mass conveys to us.
Jesus, who dies for the rank-and-file, warns us against seeking lordship, and reminds us that he – Our Lord – came to serve us, the riff-raff. He does not remind us of this to humiliate us, but to remind us of how much he loves us. Although he is Lord, he has shared our life with us, as the second reading says, ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’
Our dignity is not drawn from the things we do or can do. We are not valued for our quality of life. Instead our dignity and value come from what we are, (human beings – rational creatures made in the image of God) and from what we are being made into (the children of God by adoption through grace). The lordship we Christians have is one of service to each other, just like the lordship of Jesus who came to save us, to save the hoi polloi.