“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26b-28
The May edition of O Magazine (Oprah, ya’ll!) created a lot of buzz due to some provocative and stereotype-reversing photos in an article on race. One of the photos is of a group of stylish Asian women receiving pedicures from a group of white women donning aprons. Another is of a white woman in a maid’s uniform serving tea to an affluent Latina woman. In America do we have a certain stereotype about what the people who tend to our toes or clean our houses should look like? I think we do, and that’s why the role-reversing photos hit such a nerve.
Jesus creates a similarly shocking role-reversal when he washes the disciples’ feet. He strips down to the waste, kneels down to the ground, and starts washing their dirty, smelly, crusty feet like a servant rather than a Lord. Aghast, Peter tells Jesus, “You shall never wash my feet.” However, Jesus patiently teaches the disciples through his words and his actions that to serve is to be great. On another occasion, Jesus tells the disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand the cornerstone of our faith: even the son of God humbles himself as a servant to the point of laying down his own life for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Yet in our culture, greatness is often characterized by being served rather than serving. I fall into the trap of rigid, hierarchical thinking, too. I was sharing with my discussion buddy in the small group study I attend how easily I get frustrated or indignant when a co-worker or family member asks me to do something I find tedious, annoying, beneath me, not in my job description, etc. However, when I’m volunteering with Crescent City Cafe, an organization that serves a restaurant-style breakfast to the homeless and low-income, I have a completely different “work” outlook. When a Cafe guest or volunteer asks me for something or makes a mess, I have seemingly endless reserves of patience and I’m much more willing to tackle tedious and dirty tasks – even dishes – with a smile. It’s almost like putting on my Cafe t-shirt is like putting on the role of a servant. It’s all about my perspective, and that’s something I can choose.
So how can I mentally put on my servant t-shirt every day? There are plenty of opportunities to practice! For example, earlier this week when I found myself spending over an hour working on a project for whole other department, I had to check myself when I started to get frustrated. I reminded myself that the reason I wanted to work at the City in the first place was to serve. True servants don’t pick and choose their tasks. I re-focused on the positive outcomes of the other department’s project and chose to be grateful for the ability to help move it forward and learn more about the other department’s work.
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this servant mindset thing a recipe for being a doormat? What if I serve too much and don’t have anything left for myself? Nearly everyone in a servant role from work to parenting to church committee membership and beyond has asked this question. I think it’s important to remember to put your own oxygen mask on first, but I also think it’s important to push yourself.
A few years ago I led a small group study at church that covered the topic of service. One of the video messages really stuck with me. In response to the fear of giving too much, a woman said something along the lines of, “We will never know how much we can give until we try. Every time I’m worried about giving too much, I try to give just a little more than I think is possible. It is an act of faith. I haven’t reached the point of serving too much yet, and I don’t know if I ever will.” This woman’s words come back to me every time I worry about overextending myself in putting others’ needs before mine. I try to give just a little more, relying on God for strength and patience. And God delivers! Paradoxically, despite my up-front worries it’s in the midst of serving that I feel most fulfilled.
In our society, we barely notice those who serve us, those who do the dirty work that we would never stoop to do. But in God’s kingdom, those who serve are great. “Everyone can be great,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “because everyone can serve.” King served the cause of civil rights to the point of death. What if Jesus had decided that he should be served rather than to sacrifice his life for us? But he didn’t. The nature of God is love and grace given to us through amazing sacrifice. And following forward, for me, means to faithfully put on my servant shirt every day.
What about you? Is there a situation where you could use a role-reversing mindset shift toward service? I’d love to hear your thoughts. And thank you for reading!