Upstairs or Downstairs? – Reflections on Service
I blame Netflix. After all, if someone or something is to be blamed, it may as well be that. Netflix evaluated what I had been viewing and recommended that I watch Downton Abbey. This is where the addiction began, and now I am hooked! The seasons are short, like an NBC “stinker” – only eight or nine episodes each. I have breezed through the first season on Netflix. Now I await season two, recently requested from the library.
As I wait, I am trying to determine why I find the series so intriguing. It may be the setting in a “castle” in the English countryside. It could be the well-written characters and story-line. It might very well be because the story opens a window onto a world that I little understand and barely knew existed: The world of Lords and Ladies and their various servants.
If you already know the story, then you know that life in the manor house is divided into two worlds: upstairs and downstairs. During the day, the servants are mostly downstairs in the kitchen and various work-areas of the house while the masters of the house are “upstairs” in their dressing rooms, the dining room, library or parlor. At night, the relationship is reversed because the servants sleep in the attic areas above the gentle men and women.
Much of the conflict of this series’ plot is drawn from the tension between upstairs and downstairs. Some of the servants resent their lowly positions. For some, their resentment spurs them toward improving themselves while others allow that resentment to fester into bitterness towards their employers. Some of the gentle men and women are unmindful of the servants around them, which only adds to the servant’s resentment.
In contrast, some of the servants are depicted as being more noble than their employers. They carry themselves, both physically and morally, with a distinctly upright bearing. Likewise, there are some of the gentle folk who are gracious and compassionate to their servants; sympathizing with them in their circumstances and attempting to help their employees better themselves.
The result is a complex and interesting tale. As I watch, I often wonder, “How would I have fared had I lived in Edwardian England?” Would I have been master or servant, and would I have played my part well?
Of course, Jesus had much to say on the subject of lording authority over others and on the subject of service. As you read the Gospels, it seems Jesus’ disciples were frequently “upside-down” on the topic of authority and service. They argued among themselves over who was the greatest. They jockeyed for position in Jesus’ soon-coming-kingdom. It was after one such argument, Jesus reprimanded the disciples, saying, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)
Jesus had just gotten up from the table, removed His outer garment, bent down and washed His disciple’s feet. He was taking on this servant role to illustrate the greater role that He was going to fulfill in service to them upon the cross. Actually, He was serving us all in nailing our transgressions to that tree. Our King carried our burden to the uttermost.
I know that we, too, like Jesus’ other disciples, gravitate toward positions of authority. We often desire the places of honor and position. It’s natural to want to be seen and appreciated. Were we to write ourselves into the script of Downton Abbey, we would want to be the Lords and Ladies of the house, not so much the servants. Jesus would tell us that it is not position or title that we should be clamoring after, but rather, a reputation of love one to another.
After He had washed their feet, Jesus charged His disciple, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15-17) Moments later, He told them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
The truth is, very few of us writes our own life’s script. We don’t get to pick where we’re born into the house: upstairs or downstairs. But each day we can choose how we respond to the circumstances we are give. Do we respond from bitterness or in love? Will we serve others, regardless of our station in life? Will we be marked out as one of Jesus’ own disciples or not? Upstairs or downstairs – servant or master – these distinctions matter little to Jesus our King. His question to us all is this: “How well do you love?”
Praying for you all a heart of love,