Service inspires a better future. For with service, there is no scarcity. There are limitless opportunities. If there is an ambition key to greatness, it is service of others.
The 1946 Nobel Prize-winner Herman Hesse’s 1932 novella, Journey to the East, leaves an enduring lesson. It is about a sect, The League. Some members of the real and fictitious characters of The League set out in search of the Ultimate Truth. Finding it means reaching the ultimate purpose of their lives and aspirations. It means a status of which none is more excellent.
The journey is long and arduous. Yet, if the pilgrims made it, they found ultimate fulfillment. They will need nothing else, having found all they longed for.
Among the pilgrims are prestigious characters such as extraordinary thinkers like Plato, outstanding composers like Mozart, great mathematicians like Pythagoras, and a few other elites. H. H.—whose point-of-view narrates the story—is among them. He has a violin which he uses to entertain himself. There is another character who seems unimportant. He is Leo.
Leo is humble, unassuming, and less noticeable. For those familiar with Latin, you remember Leo means a Lion. But this Leo, though as strong as a lion was as gentle as a lamb, and as serviceable as a sheep. Everyone knows him and relates with him because they call him to serve their needs. He serves everybody and does not show any air of importance. He is just their errand boy.
Big Egos’ Problems
Along their journey—at the Morbio Inferiore—a crisis arises within the big ego group. They blame Leo for it, as they blame him for everything. They blame him for stealing an item from them, which they consider vital to the journey. It turns out it wasn’t important to the journey. They find the missing item. Leo is innocent.
Poor, selfless Leo is their common enemy. The rest of the team have big egos. They are ambitious and competitive. Everyone wants to be the first and trample on anyone else to reach the so-called Ultimate Truth, the promised land. Their ego is bigger than the road it takes to reach the promise.
Meanwhile, Leo is all about service. He is doing the very things nobody else wants to do. It is those kinds of things, the seemingly unnoticed, that keep the team together.
Leo leaves the team; egos crash the system. Cohesion goes out of the window. Ego reigns. Fight for power and supremacy take the better of everything else. It is my point of view; my way or no other way becomes the culture. It is a terrible organizational culture because ego creates it. The characters see only themselves, not the other or the common good. In the end, nothing works. There is nothing but chaos. Hence, the group disintegrates.
The Servant, the President
H. H. is one of the victims who sank into a deep depression while still—like everyone else—blaming Leo for his problem. Then, years later, he meets someone who tells him he found Leo. So, he writes an essay, a blame game, with vitriols on why Leo is responsible for the disbanding of the team and the pains he suffers.
Leo receives the Letter and shows up at H. H.’s house. He invites him to appear at the High Throne to be judged by The League officials.
H.H. realizes at The League that the unassuming Leo was the President of The League. Leo set it all from the start to test who will be great, who of the ego-driven, self-absorbed could reach the Ultimate Truth. None could. And none will. For none had the heart of service.
The Suffering Servant
This story resonates with the message of the Gospel and the other readings of today. The suffering servant (Isaiah 53:10-11)—Christ—though Lord, accepts the way of sacrifices for others. By his wounds, you and I heal (Isaiah 53:5-6). He bears our guilt and—through his suffering—justifies us (v. 11).
Through his life of service, he shows us what true greatness is, having been one like us in all things except sin (Hebrew 4:15). He presents us the little child, the humble and unassuming, as the way to perfection. Positional authority (seat of power) on earth or in heaven as represented in the request of (or about) James and John has one road to it. It is the way of humble service and a generous, unassuming heart like that of a child.
Our culture is about competition. Competition is good. I get it. The apostles are in for it too. Who does not want to be at the top? The Old Testament Deuteronomy 28:13 endorses the head and the top, not the tail and the least. Prosperity gospel preachers like the passage, too, though they skip the conditional clause “…if they observe the Lord’s commandment.” The New Testament speaks of glory also. But the condition, the biblical standard, is unmistakable—the way to glory is selfless sacrifice. It is the way of sacrificial service. It is the way of the cross (Matthew 14:26; Luke 24:26).
True Measure of Greatness
Positional authority isn’t the end goal. Greatness, for that matter, isn’t a value worth investing in as life’s mission. Being at the top—positional authority—is the least of the Gospel values. It is rather the gospel of our commercial world, with its frenzy for more money, and power.
Our commercials speak it all. It is one company against another, a brand against another. It is one friend against another. We seem to be fighting over only one thing. We accuse poor Leo of stealing it. When actually, there are numerous more essential things. The one thing we fight over is not necessary for ultimate fulfillment and joy.
Greatness is a result of something—service, not a goal service sets for itself. Greatness is the fruit of several sacrifices made for others. It results from those sacrifices. It is not something we buy. Instead, It is the life we live for others. Its greatest enemy is self-absorption.
Our ego won’t let us see beyond our point of view. If it is not the way we see it, it must be wrong. Yet, we are projecting ourselves, our egos. If led by our ego, it is difficult to take the place of the servant. We see the place of a servant as a sign of weakness. Yet, the road to greatness is too narrow for big ego’s walkway, and wide enough for the servant.
We believe we show the example of the servant (service) only when we have the position of a king, a leader. Service is about position first, before it is about our attitude to everyday life. Wrong. Serve first. Then we can lead better the service we have been living.
The Road to the Top
Precisely, being at the top is about allowing service from the beginning to the end. Greatness is the outcome of it all. Positional authority is a flourish.
The child’s way is service. It is the joy of service first because it springs from a humble heart. It leads to honor. Honor follows, it does not precede.
Moreover, neither honor nor positional authority is the fun part. To say it straight: positional authority is limiting in many ways. You cannot be a president of a sorority more than is required by by-laws. Every positional authority is time-based and time-stamped. When you are a CEO, what else do you need to be? What fun? What delight?
On the contrary, it is in the humble place of service that real fun exists. It is in service that explorations occur. There is pure spirit too. New, exciting experiences and ideas emerge. And it is in service that the future is more inspiring. For with service, there is no scarcity. There are limitless opportunities.
The Gospel invitation is straightforward. Do you want to be great? Begin by making your bed and sweeping your room. Then, extend it by taking away the trash in the yard. More, by serving not just for oneself and one’s joy, but for others. The way to glory is in sacrificial service for the common good. It is the Gospel of Christ.