Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
We sometimes hear of the ‘pecking order’. And it’s correct to say that every society, organisation and schoolyard has a pecking order. Human nature dictates that there are those who are served and those who do the serving. In the old days, masters had servants who did a lot of menial work for them. And in some parts of the world this is still the case.
I’m thinking of the days of Jesus when he was on earth over 2000 years ago. In those days roads were not very good, and people walked a lot on dusty roads, and it was common to have your feet washed before sitting down to share in a meal. It wasn’t a very pleasant task, and was unappealing. Who would do it? The servants of course. And the disciples of Jesus were not willing to wash feet. It was a menial task, beneath their dignity. Foot washing was a menial job—even the students of a rabbi had too much dignity to wash their teacher’s feet. It was for slaves, servants and women.
Yet Jesus came with a different message. He taught that those who would be great are those most prepared to serve others. It certainly was different to hear a religious leader talk like this. Jesus’ followers had difficulty in understanding this.
A spirit of servanthood
We read what happened one day in John’s gospel before his betrayal and crucifixion. We read in John 13 at the meal he shared with his disciples. It was a special and intimate moment when Jesus washed their feet. To actually wash their feet was a scandalous act. (Read verses 4 to 15)
In this remarkable act of servanthood, Jesus demonstrated that true greatness is not about position, but attitude. In Matthew’s gospel he said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” ( Matthew 20:26-27). People had trouble accepting his words. They were amazed at how different they were. They would say to Jesus, How do I get to first place? He said, by being last. Others said, How do I lead? He said, by following.
An attitude of true service, not self-service
Another day James and John spoke with Jesus, “Teacher, there is something we want you to do for us”. “What is it?”, Jesus asked. They answered, “When you sit on your throne in your kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one on your right and one on your left”. Jesus said, “You don’t know what you’re asking for. Can you drink the cup of suffering that I must drink? Can you be baptised in the way I must be baptised?” “We can”, they answered. The other disciples heard about it and were angry.
So Jesus called them together and said:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give His life to redeem many people. (Mark 10:35-37; 42-45)
Jesus is not destroying authority, because positions of leadership will always be necessary. Nor does it mean that those who serve should be treated like doormats, or exploited or abused. There’s a good book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. He makes an important distinction between true service—as shown by Jesus—and ‘self-service’.
Self-service, he writes, is about choosing who and when we will serve. It’s about serving to make themselves feel better. But true service means putting yourself out, not for personal glory. In God’s eyes all people are worth serving. It means acting wherever and whenever it is needed.