You Gotta Serve Somebody

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

6. Servant

It would be so easy if our sixth word – the one that represents Mary’s response to God’s invitation – was a simple “yes.”

After all, she does say yes.  It’s arguably the greatest yes ever spoken.

But “yes” is not in the text.  Instead, replying to the angel Gabriel’s mind-bending announcement that God is asking her to bear Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant.  Let it happen to me just as you say” (Luke 1:38). 

The challenge is coming to grips with the word she uses to describe herself: the Greek noun doule (pronounced “doo-lay”).

Doule is one of those words that can be understood a half-dozen different ways in English.  It all depends on the context.  In the ancient Mediterranean world, where Greek had become the universal language, it was the everyday term for “female servant” or “female slave.”  In a number of English translations, Luke 1:38 is rendered “maid” or “handmaiden.”  It could also mean “bondservant.” 

So, when Mary says she is “the Lord’s doule,” what exactly is she affirming?

To modern ears, the words “servant” and “handmaid” are far kinder and gentler than “slave,” which is why the former and not the latter usually appear in our translations.  We cringe at the thought of slavery – human beings, robbed of their freedom and dignity, forced to perform demeaning tasks.  But the fact that a single Greek word described both servanthood and slavery in classical times is evidence that those two conditions weren’t significantly different.

It’s important to note, however, that chattel slavery, like that in the American South – where slaves and their offspring were considered the permanent property of their masters – was comparatively rare in the ancient world. 

Instead, slavery was often a temporary arrangement, voluntarily embraced, so that someone might survive a personal financial crisis.  It’s estimated that one-third of all those living around the Mediterranean rim were slaves.  Another one-third of the population was former slaves.    

In ancient Israel, slavery was a common means to pay off debts.  If I owed you far more money than I could possibly pay, by law I might be forced to become a member of your household and live under your authority.  I would serve you and your interests for six years.

But if we were fellow Israelites, at the end of those six years you were be required to set me free – no matter how much money I still owed you.  

Perhaps, however, you’ve treated me well.  Perhaps being a member of your household has blessed me beyond all expectation.   Therefore, if you and I are in agreement, I could choose to live permanently under your authority as a bondservant. 

How might that happen?  I would stand by your front door and put my ear against the wooden frame.  Then you would take an awl – essentially, an ice pick – and push a hole through the cartilage of my ear.  That mark would signify that I have chosen to become your lifelong servant.

That’s the spirit of Mary’s choice. 

“Lord, here I am.  You’re now in charge of my life.  I choose to be under your leadership and live as part of your household forever.”

It’s as if Mary is signing her name to the bottom of a blank sheet of paper – a covenant of heartfelt service – trusting that God will fill in all the details one day at a time.  

It’s impossible to overstate what an act of courage this is.

Saying yes to God, in Mary’s case, also means saying no.  She’s saying goodbye to her reputation.  Unmarried, expectant teenagers in first century Israel didn’t get a guest spot on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant.  They and their families got scorn and misunderstanding instead. 

Mary is losing the honor game – the most important game in town.  In an “honor culture” like that of the Middle East (then and now), people assume that only a finite amount of honor exists.  There’s not enough to go around.  If one person’s public esteem goes up, someone else’s has to go down. 

Because Mary’s child will be publicly identified as a mamzer – the Hebrew term for a child from an illicit relationship – she and Jesus and Joseph will all live under a cloud of shame for the rest of their lives, an association almost impossible to eradicate.   

Mary is likewise saying no to her dreams of a quiet, pain-free life.  After Jesus is born, a wise old man named Simeon will tell her that raising God’s Son will involve great suffering.  “A sword will pierce your soul,” he assures her (Luke 2:35).  This is not the kind of sentiment that inspires Christmas carols or a new line of Hallmark cards. 

Why does she say yes?

Mary, who would no doubt have been dismissed in her own time as a peasant girl from a podunk province on the fringes of the empire, intuitively understands what so many of history’s brightest, best-educated figures never seem to comprehend:  All of us are servants.  The only real issue is whom or what we will choose to serve. 

Bob Dylan won a Grammy for his song Gotta Serve Somebody.  The refrain goes, “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.  You’re gonna have to serve somebody.  Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

John Lennon, apparently irritated by such limited options, responded with a song of his own:  Serve Yourself

But all he did was prove Dylan’s point.  You can give your ultimate loyalty to a global cause, to personal honor and advancement, to an ideal partner, to your savings account, or to the absolute conviction that there’s nothing worth your ultimate loyalty – but you will definitely end up choosing to serve something

Mary knows she is always going to be a servant.  Therefore she decides, “I am the Lord’s servant.” 

And that makes all the difference in the world. 

It can make all the difference in the world for us, too.

Which is why we should endeavor this year and every year to have a Mary Christmas.