Spiritual Parallels: Why We Serve

by Jayanti (Pamela Hoye)

In establishing the Ramakrishna Order in the ideal of service, we know that “service” to Swami Vivekananda meant more than simply “doing good works” or “making good karma.” Coming from a Christian background, I am always inspired to find parallel teachings in the words of Jesus. Consider this example: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” From a Vedantic standpoint, such a statement indicates that Jesus is also advocating what Vivekananda termed “the service of God in man,” although I had never heard such an interpretation.

That Jesus also meant more than simply “doing good” perhaps needs more support. I find this support in paradox. Both emphasize serving the poor and needy. The references are many. Yet both also say that helping make the world better is not the goal. It is, in fact, an impossibility! Swamiji writes rather bluntly: “Never be deluded by the tall talk, of which you hear so much in America, about ‘human progress’ and such stuff. There is no progress without corresponding digression.”

Jesus mirrors Swamiji and points to a higher purpose in his defense of the woman who anoints him with an oil that might have been sold to raise money for the poor. “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her?” he asks his disciples. “She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” Repeatedly Jesus has emphasized helping the poor, but here he says there will always be poor people to help. His followers have missed the point. His teaching isn’t just about helping the poor. It is about service to the divine, made manifest in him. He tells them that this woman will be remembered for her devotion.

Another example is found in the story of his visit to the home of Martha and Mary, two sisters who are well known to the Master. Martha has appealed to Jesus, expecting him to reprimand Mary for shirking her household duties as hostess in order to sit at Jesus’ feet. One imagines Martha is taken aback when, instead, he tells her none of the things she has been taught to worry about are important. It is Mary who has taken up the one thing necessary. Our usual idea of duty Swamiji observes, “is the bane of human life. This duty, this idea of duty is the midday summer sun which scorches the innermost soul of mankind. . . .The only true duty is to be unattached and to work as free beings, to give up all work unto God.”

Both Christianity and Vedanta speak of attaining something other than this life as we ordinarily experience it. Historically this has led some aspirants from each tradition to reject the world entirely. Vivekananda eliminated the seeming paradox by using service not as a worldly imperative, but as a genuine spiritual discipline. Again, Swamiji says: “We always forget that this world is a means to an end, and not an end itself.” In the SerMon on the Mount, Jesus explains that those who are not on a spiritual path will continue to toil after the rewards of the world. To those seeking spiritual realization he advises: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Both are telling us that our purpose in serving others rests in purifying our intent by fixing our thought on the divine, for “Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

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