Jesus is very good at turning situations upside down. In fact, throughout the gospels, we see this time and again. The one near death is healed. The hated tax collector becomes the one chosen to host Jesus and his disciples for dinner. The poor are given a place of honour at the table instead of being relegated to the place of servants or observers. Women are given a voice and a role. The teachers of the law are shown to have missed the point of what the law really teaches. The list goes on.
And this Sunday’s gospel does that again. But this time, it is Jesus himself who puts himself in the unexpected place. And by extension, he does the same to all his followers.
In any organisation, it is easy for there to be a dispute about who (or which role) is more important. Who or what takes precedence? And sometimes that discussion is right and proper and is to the benefit of all, especially when it comes to safety. But sometimes it becomes about ego.
Jesus lived in a world and a time where the great and the good were marked out as such by the deference paid to them by others, and by the often thoughtless and even callous way that they treated those who were socially or economically inferior to themselves. Arguably, in some places, little has changed! But Jesus doesn’t just call for change in this; he embodies it.
So when his disciples indulge in jostling and elbowing and ego contest to decide which of them is the greatest, Jesus pulls the rug out from under them very effectively indeed. “I am among you as one who serves,” he says. He enacts this physically at the Last Supper, when he washes their feet – the task that was usually allotted to the humblest servant in the house, because it generally wasn’t exactly a pleasant one.
And so, their argument suddenly is nothing. More, it is embarrassing to them. You can’t stand there having an argument about who is more important when your leader stoops down and washes your feet. Especially when over the past months and years you have all gradually come to recognise to a greater or lesser extent that this leader is truly a man of God. And, after the Resurrection, that he IS God!
So where does that leave us? Well, I wonder if another of Jesus’ sayings might shed some light – the Parable of the Yeast (Matthew 13.33). The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place; it is a way of life. Arguably it is also the people who live according to that way of life. And so those who live according to Jesus’ principles of service and crucifying the selfish ego, by their very example and action, may in turn inspire others. On this criteria, it’s not about what we say; it’s not about what we believe; it’s about we do.
“Do as I do,” says Jesus. “I am among you as one who serves.”