In Matthew 20 Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming into the world as a servant. He teaches his followers to serve as he served. No single Christian principle has produced more good in the world than this: serving others. Here is how Jesus teaches his followers:

You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

There are few words in all of human history that come close to these in terms of genuinely turning the world upside down. Jesus says, in effect, that you should have this raging, aggressive ambition that dominates your whole life. You must not be indifferent. You should, as we say in the West, be “driven by this ambition.” You should strive with all you have to become a servant to others. You should seek to be first – first in reaching the lowest place of service to others!

Cantalamessa Lent is a special time to be reminded of this great truth. This is why Father Ramon Cantalamessa, one of my favorite Catholic authors and teachers, recently spoke about it in his Fourth Lenten Homily to the Pope and the Roman Curia. Cantalamessa is the household preacher to Pope Benedict XVI and served in the same role to Pope John Paul II for many years. Cantalamessa is a winsome, warm, evangelical teacher and Capuchin priest. His books are often assigned for classes in more than a few evangelical seminaries. (This, in fact, is how I first discovered him! I had more than a few friends seek to introduce me to him personally when I was in Rome but since I was there during the first week of Lent, his busiest time of the year as the papal preacher, his schedule would not allow for visitors.)

The sermon Cantalamessa recently gave had the title: “Love Must Be Active: The Social Relevance of the Gospel.” He noted that Christian communities have always been characterized by “sharing” with others, including non-Christians. The Lord’s example, noted Fr. Cantalamessa, was to show compassion for the poor, the sick and the hungry. “This example . . . was never simply an empty sentiment but was always translated into concrete help.” Christian charity was profoundly present in the first decades after Jesus’ resurrection, as we can clearly see in the New Testament writings themselves.

Cantalamessa noted that this care eventually created “initiatives, and later institutions, for the care of the sick, the support of widows and orphans, providing aid to prisoners, soup-kitchens for the poor, assistance to foreigners, etc.”

For the early Christians, and those generations that followed them in the second, third and fourth centuries, there was a need to “translate love into social gestures.” Thus love was never a sentiment but action, service, charity in the best sense of the word. Indeed, the word “love” in our English Bible in 1 Corinthians 13 is caritas in Latin. True charity is true love. 

Charity has always been considered the greatest of the seven “theological virtues.” The Greek word agape describes charity in 1 Corinthians 13. It is active love for God that expresses itself in human acts of love (service) toward others. The natural opposite of love is hatred but in this case indifference seems to best express what is the opposite of the Christian concept of love (service).

We cannot say that we love unless we become involved in service to others. Mother Teresa said: "Give your hands to serve and your hearts to love.” This includes the sacrificial giving of our money to mission and the poor but it includes so much more. I am persuaded that very few Christians in the West understand this at all.

Tomorrow: Social Theology and Christian Service