Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
By nature, we like to be served. When I go into a restaurant, I expect the waitstaff to present me with my options and then take my order. I expect them to bring my order from the kitchen, prepared in the proper way. When I have finished with my meal, I expect to leave my dirty dishes at the table for someone else to clean up. When these things do not happen, I am disappointed.
What would you think if you went to a restaurant and instead of giving you a menu, they provided you with a list of raw ingredients and an apron? You are then informed that you will have to go into the kitchen and prepare your own meal. When you are done, you will return to the kitchen to wash your dishes. Finally, you will be required to pay for the things that you have used. I’m pretty sure that you would not return to that restaurant.
In very subtle ways, we have been programmed all of our lives to expect to be served. Even the move to self-serve checkout highlights our desire to be served. Some of us (like me) avoid those lines. We see self-service as an imposition, not a benefit. Why should I do the job of a checkout person for free?!
This morning in our men’s Bible Study we examined the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, in John 13. In that day, it was the job of the lowliest servant in the house to wash the feet of the master when he came home or the feet of his guests. Everyone wore sandals and walked on dusty roads, so their feet would be dirty. Just like we ask people to take off their shoes when they come into our homes, it was expected that people would have their feet washed before they entered the house.
On this occasion, Jesus is gathered with his disciples in the upper room to celebrate the Passover. From the context, we can surmise that none of the disciples felt that it was their job to wash the other’s feet. Therefore, they reclined at the table with unwashed feet. Observing this jockeying for position, Jesus got up from the table, laid aside his outer garment, and proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet, much to their horror. When He was done, He returned to the table and told them that just as He had served them in such a lowly and humble way, they were to serve one another.
Obeying Jesus’ command is not as easy as it sounds. To truly take on the role of a servant is a challenging task. It means genuinely putting the needs of others above our own. It means setting aside our sense of pride or privilege. It means willingly doing the uncomfortable thing, the difficult thing, the demeaning thing. Being a genuine, humble servant is a challenge to our status.
Often our service is selective and done in a condescending manner. We serve out of a position of power, making sure that others know that we are voluntarily offering them something. We put limits on what we will do and when we will do it. But Jesus called for a much more radical approach.
In Matthew 20, we see the disciples in a conflict over which of them is the greatest. James and John seemed to jump to the front of the line, requesting that they be given the seats of power and privilege in Jesus’ coming kingdom. The others were indignant with the brothers. Why? Because each of them felt that that position belonged to them. It seems that this vying for position was a fairly common occurrence among the disciples. Jesus took this opportunity to redefine what it means to be great in the Kingdom of God.
Greatness in the Kingdom is not measured by power and influence over others. It is measured by humble service. In fact, Jesus said that to be truly great they would have to humble themselves and take the role of the lowliest slave in the household. To make His point very clear, He declared that He didn’t come to rule, but to serve, even to the point of giving His very life for others.
True servanthood is a radical proposition. It means being willing to be taken advantage of by others in order to serve them. It means setting aside our rights to uphold the dignity of others. It means being willing to perform the most menial tasks in order to benefit others. In essence, it means to stop putting ourselves first in everything. As C.S. Lewis has put it, true humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less. Genuine servanthood is not about us, but about giving ourselves away for Christ and for others.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.