A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
It’s a tricky thing, this matter of who is greatest and what it means. I’m not sure I quite follow Jesus here.
O.K., I get the first part, I know what the Gentiles are like, I see quite enough of them modeled everywhere. The Presidential Motorcade, the celebrity red carpet events, membership has its privilege, etc. etc. The powerful, the influential those who hold the reigns of power, the movers and shakers, the ones who can make things happen with their intellect, or their position, or their vast resources and influence.
I understand that.
“But not so with you,” Jesus says.
Which, I have to admit is a little disappointing because this is what I aspire to, what I think we all aspire to become whether we like to admit it or not.
We want to be people who make a difference in the world.
We want to be the person who is looked up to, or listened to, and to whom people pay attention when we speak.
We don’t want to be like “the youngest” again! You know, that “last born” who is either a total brat or invisible, scraping for any little scrap of recognition that can come their way.
I understand the dispute the disciples are engaged in as they debate which one of them was to be regarded as “the greatest.” We live that dispute every day in one way or another, in our job, or in our family, or here in the church or in the neighborhood. The dispute is the result of living in this world, and the day to day interactions we have with each other.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made, in the image of God, so the scripture says. We are unique individuals and with that unique point of view that God puts within us there is this natural tendency to get on one another’s nerves.
Have you noticed that?
I mean, I like to cook and I can make a pretty good chicken noodle soup but it’s not MOM’s chicken noodle soup!
And so it begins, this ranking and rating, trying to determine which soup is better. We are ranking and rating each other all the time, making determinations about who should make this decision or that, what the right protocol is for one thing or another. What procedures should be followed, and which ones we can wink and nod at and move on. To live in this world is to put oneself into the position of jockeying. If you aren’t jostling for your position, advocating for your own self-interest, or stretching yourself to achieve, inspiring and aspiring in some way, then you aren’t really living.
So I follow Jesus pretty well right up to this point.
I get that we are always rubbing each other the wrong way and jockeying for position.
I get that Jesus says it should not be so among us, even if that’s REALLY the way I want it to be, and I find myself battling against those urges that are a normal and natural part of this life to “be” something.
But this is where I don’t follow, Jesus: “For who is greater, (Jesus asks) the one who is at the table or the one who serves?”
Now, if you stopped this passage right there, I would still be following and all good with it because what I would expect would be this great “role reversal” that Jesus is so very fond of doing, the role reversal where the greatest become the least, and the least become the greatest.
And so, we commend the person who is able to step down away from the table and who can pick up the tray or the towel and start to serve. At which case this whole exchange by Jesus becomes an instruction about what we are supposed to do. We take, “it shall not be so among you….” as the cue line setting us up for what it should be doing, what it is we should be engaging in. We should be able to follow Jesus example, empty ourselves, and just jump right up and get busy being the servant.
Who is greater? Obviously it must be the one who steps down from the table and starts serving, and we are just about ready to jump up and do that, and I can even imagine the disciples on this night getting in line, jostling with one another to be the first one to grab the tray or grab the towel.
But then Jesus throws in this line. Is it not the one at the table? (who is the greatest, being implied) But I (Jesus says) am among you as one who serves.”
See, now I’m all confused, I just don’t follow the logic, because what I expected Jesus to be showing me, telling me to what to do is to get up off of my butt, stop jockeying for position, grab and tray or a towel and get busy. That’s how I would be “greatest”… by being the youngest, the leader like one who serves.
But with that last line what Jesus does is effectively sit me back down at the table and calls me the greatest.
Now I’m all confused. I just don’t follow.
Doesn’t Jesus want me to be serving? Didn’t he just say that the greatest is the leader who serves? Don’t you want me to join you, Jesus, to be like you Jesus?
The answer appears to be “No, not just yet.”
“Sit back down, I got this one,” Jesus seems to be saying. And he seems to indicate that if we do, we may understand better what he means in three day’s time. Maybe in three day’s time we’ll be able to follow.
If you jump up now and grab a towel or grab a tray, how is that different from the beginning of the story when you were disputing with one another about who was greatest.
You are the greatest. — That’s what Jesus says here.
Each and every one of you, around this table with me, you are the greatest, precisely because you are at this table! That’s what I think of you. That’s what God thinks you. You are the greatest…. I’d do anything for you!
And what Jesus does now, he does for you, as one who serves.
He goes where you cannot go, not yet…..
Jesus takes upon myself this journey, to cross and tomb, across the shards of dried up palms that once heralded his triumphant entry.
Jesus did not so much take up the basin and towel just to show you what you are capable of doing, but rather to show you what he is capable of doing, what God is capable of doing, because God thinks you are the greatest!
There will be time to take up your towel, your tray… but for now. For now stay at the table.
Watch, and wait, and pray, and let Jesus do what Jesus chooses to do, as one who serves. God does this because God thinks you are the greatest.