I’ve heard it said that when it comes to a computer, you want the operating system to be invisible. You want to simply fire up the machine and do whatever you like without thinking about what the microprocessor is capable of doing or how to interface with the programs. Recently, I read someone’s praise of the iPhone for this very reason: users can simply open the box and get it to perform because the OS is so intuitive, so invisible.
Just as a hallmark of a good OS is practical invisibility, the same is true of a good servant. Surely that will offend some readers, but that’s because we citizens of modern democracies don’t have a comprehensive understanding of servanthood. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, The Remains of the Day, a “perfect English butler” of the post World War I era, comments that it is a sign of professionalism to be essentially invisible when serving dinner to a gentleman and his guest(s). To be noticeable is to do one’s job poorly.
When Jesus got up from the dinner table, removed his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist and set about washing the feet of his disciples, he was performing the duties of a servant. For Christians of all types this story gives the archetypal image of what is popularly known in Christian communities as “servant-leadership”. The Master becomes a slave. We ought to do the same. No, we must do the same. Jesus says, “I’ve given you a pattern so you can do the same…” and that pattern is servant-shaped.
Yet, it frequently appears that God’s call on people’s lives is to a high-profile ministry, a more prestigious appointment, a more lucrative position or some other position that is relatively higher than the one they currently occupy, either inside or outside of the church. When we hear each other talk about God’s call on our lives, do we ever hear ourselves say that we’ve been called to a service which renders us virtually invisible? When have we ever said or heard ourselves say that we were called by God to lead a quiet life and work with our hands? Who do we know that quietly exercises the spiritual gift of menial labor?
Jesus gave us a servant-shaped pattern to follow and he wasn’t invisible when he did it. In fact, he intentionally drew our attention to it and in a dramatic way. He had to draw our attention to it in this way, because when a servant is doing his job well, he is, like a good operating system and a “perfect English butler”, practically invisible to those who benefit from his service.