Among the closest followers of Jesus there existed an ongoing debate about who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom. James and John attempted an end run around the other disciples, and in a semi-private session with Jesus they asked specifically for the top two slots (Mark 10:35-37). Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 20:20-21) shares the detail that James and John brought their mother to the meeting, and she made the request of Jesus. Spoiler alert: The other ten disciples were not okay with this development.
Power struggles exist in any organization, and the reward system often supports the practice of stepping on others to reach the next rung of the ladder. Survival of the fittest, exploitation of the weak, looking out for number one—we can apply many labels, but the outcome remains constant. The best perks and loftiest titles await those with the most distance between themselves and the bottom. And how they climbed to the pinnacle is not as important as being there.
Jesus used the teachable moment James and John created to outline His expectations.
Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 NASB
The men did not grasp the lesson. They retained their fractured view that promotion belongs to those who take it, and the stigma of serving guarantees a man the lowest spot. Jesus took the lesson deeper in John 13. The event certainly made an impression on John who was the only Gospel writer who dared record the details.
Feet get messy along paths frequented by livestock. And should one wear sandals on such a trek, as the disciples did, unpleasant foreign matter may be squished between the toes. Feet in such a condition need a good washing, and the exercise in hygiene grows in importance when the local eating customs dictate that dining is done in a reclined position in a “one-guy’s-feet-to-another-guy’s-nose” arrangement.
The lowest and most expendable servant on staff had a lock on the foot washing responsibilities. Unjamming toes was his task. As the disciples gathered with Jesus for a meal there was no such servant. With twelve men posturing over who would be greatest no one moved to take on the role of the least important. Jesus grabbed a towel and did the job. Read the story in John 13:1-15.
Consider these observations on servants.
The servant’s identity is secure.
Jesus retained His identity as the Son of God before, during, and after the foot washing. Do we resist serving others out of fear that their estimation of us may be reduced or that we may be pigeonholed as less capable? The writer of Hebrews assures us that God keeps the records. His value of the servant is all that matters.
For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. Hebrews 6:10 NASB
The servant’s heart is the motivator.
Service can be defined as the opportunity in front of us coupled with our willingness to embrace the work. Service flows from the heart, and tasks are never too small or too menial. Servants do what needs doing and repeat the act as necessary.
The servant’s focus is upward.
Jesus demonstrated service by lovingly washing twelve pairs of dirty feet. So that the lesson would not be missed He exhorted his followers (John 13:15), “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.”
Our serving should not be governed by the quest for recognition but by the awareness that in serving we are practicing the example Jesus gave us. We look to Him for the strength and the attitude and the love that serving others requires.