It is one of the most famous episodes of the classic television show The Twilight Zone. A race of aliens has landed on earth. They are much more advanced than human beings. They present a gift to the residents of earth, a book written in the aliens’ language, the translated title of which is To Serve Man. The aliens set about doing good for humankind while a team of translators works on deciphering the book. Putting their advanced technology to work, the aliens soon eliminate all of humanity’s major problems, eradicating famine and war. Eventually, earth residents begin volunteering for excursions to the aliens’ home planet. One of the translators is about the enter the ship for his journey to the alien planet when a co-worker, who has now translated the book, runs up to the ship, screaming at him, “Don’t get on the ship. The book, To Serve Man, it’s a cookbook!”1
The earthlings thought that “to serve man” meant “to aid man, to do something helpful for man.” Of course the aliens were serving humankind in that way, but they had an ulterior motive – they wanted to save them so they could use them. The title of the book really meant “to serve man” as in “to serve people up as food.” The good actions of the aliens were revealed to be not so good when their motive was discovered. The purpose of their good actions was ultimately to use those human beings for their own benefit. Their actions were manipulative.
Now let’s make the considerable leap from The Twilight Zone to the New Testament. James and John, two-thirds of Jesus’ inner circle, launched a pre-emptive strike, hoping to secure places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom when he established it. They asked Jesus to grant that they could sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom. Jesus told them that they did not know what they were asking. When he asked them if they were able to drink the cup that he drank or to be baptized with the baptism with which he was baptized, their quick “Yes” revealed just how little they did know about what they were asking. Jesus told James and John that they would drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism but that who got the positions of honor in the coming kingdom was not up to him.
The other disciples were not happy about the request of the sons of Zebedee. While we cannot read their minds, it is a logical conclusion that they did not think that James and John deserved such positions of honor and that, after all, they might deserve them just as much. So Jesus called his disciples together and told them that they were not to be like tyrannical worldly rulers. Instead, he said, “It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).
We are Jesus’ disciples, too. If we would be successful followers of his then we must be servants as well. The foundation of Christian life is service to God that is lived out in service to others. The focus of Christian ministry is love of God that is fleshed out in love for others. There is simply no way around this and we ought to be ashamed if we try to find one. Being a disciple means being a servant. Being what God regards as a great disciple means being what God regards as a great servant.
Such service is not first about us. Oh, it is in some way about us but the benefit to us comes around to us through the back door and it is best if we just keep it out of our minds. Why we do what we do matters. Think again of those aliens in the Twilight Zone story. They did good and helpful things for folks. They made sure they had plenty of food and they made an end of war on earth. But they did all of that finally for their own benefit. Let’s face if – no matter how well you are taken care of, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to be eaten in the end. It is not good enough for a Christian to do good things for people if our motive is self-centered. It is not good enough for a Christian to help folks if our goal is to use the people we help for our own benefit. It is not good enough for a church to have good and reputable ministries if our only goal is to make ourselves bigger and stronger and more respected.
We don’t want to be like the disciples of Jesus of whom Lamar Williamson said, “The disciples have heard Jesus’ words, but they have the music all wrong. They still dance to the world’s tune.”2 To focus on ourselves and never to think about others is blatantly unchristian. To focus on others but always with an eye on what’s in it for us is more subtly unchristian, but it is unchristian nonetheless. The substance of Christian living and ministry is self-emptying, God-centered, other-focused, sacrificial service. It can be no other way.
And the rationale was given to the disciples and to us by Jesus himself: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God and the Savior of the world, came not to be served but to serve. In the words of the great hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” He emptied himself and came down to us in the Incarnation. And here he sought not glory. Instead, he healed the sick. He rescued the perishing. He washed feet. And, again quoting Philippians, “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” That’s how far he went in his service. He died. He died so that we could be forgiven of our sins.
Now, you might say, “Yes, but only Jesus could serve in the way he did because only Jesus could give his life as a ransom for sin.” And you would be right. Only Jesus could live and die to save people from their sins. That does not change the fact, though, that Jesus calls his followers to share in a life like his, a life of obedient service and sacrifice. That is what it means to be a Christian. The method of Christian ministry is service; the rationale for that service is Jesus’ own way of living and dying. It can be no other way. As it says in 1 John, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3:16-17).
In Rod Serling’s voiceover at the end of that Twilight Zone episode, he said that the story was about the “evolution of man, the cycle of going from dust to dessert, the metamorphosis from being the ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup.” James and John wanted to be rulers. They were thinking about coming out on top, not serving from the bottom. To live that way is to be eaten up by the world and by selfish ambition. We need to remember that people, the people all around us, are not ingredients in our soup. They are God’s precious creation for whom Jesus gave his life. Our calling is to give our lives for them, too.
Michael L. Ruffin is Pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, GA.
1. The script was written by Rod Serling and was based on a short story with the same title by Damon Knight.
2. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1983), p. 193.