Dave Kane is a returned Maryknoll lay missioner living in Brazil who works as a researcher for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.
Today’s Gospel relates one of Jesus’ more surprising and seemingly counterintuitive messages, one that is repeated throughout his teachings: that the greatest among us are not warriors or kings who rule over others, but those who are servants, who serve others.
Jesus says, “... whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” It seems that everything else in life tells us that we need to strive for greatness, to be leaders. Yet here is Jesus saying the exact opposite. We should be exalting those who serve others, yet far too often these people are ignored or worse.
Most servants would be considered to be care workers and part of the care economy, in occupations that “provide services that help people develop their capabilities, or the ability to pursue the aspects of their lives that they value.” Many care workers such as nurses, teachers and homecare assistants work in difficult conditions with low pay. But much important care work, especially indirect care activities like cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes goes unrecognized and without pay.
According to the International Labor Organization, the unpaid care sector is the largest sector of the economy, with most of the work being done by women and girls from socially disadvantaged groups. Women perform an estimated 76.2% of the total hours of unpaid care work, 3.2 times more time than men.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that even if markets collapse, the care economy continues to function; that the care economy is perhaps the most fundamental and important part of the economy. And with growing elderly populations in most countries, the importance of the care economy will only increase.
So how can we improve the situation of and respect for the servants of our world? The ILO suggests a “5R Framework for Decent Care Work:” recognizing, reducing, redistributing, rewarding and representation. The importance of care work must be recognized, drudgery and danger in some care work reduced, responsibilities redistributed between men and women as well as between households and the State. More care work should be remunerated, and care workers should be represented through collective bargaining and in policy debates about care work.
So many years ago, Jesus told us that it is the servants of the world who are to be most respected, to be most adored, yet his message has fallen on mostly deaf ears. Thankfully, this is beginning to change with governments acknowledging the importance of care workers, the servants of our day. Let us pray that humanity uses this pandemic emergency to rebuild a better system where servants are duly recognized as Jesus taught us so long ago.