An argument broke out among the disciples over which one of them should be regarded as the greatest.
But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant." (Luke 22:24-26)
Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. (John 13:3-5)
It was sometime around the sixth grade that I encountered the idea of popularity. At my school there were certain kids who were considered to be “cool”—defined by some combination of their appearance, their parents’ wealth, their self-confidence, and their sporting prowess. By high school the characteristics of greatness were expanded to include those students nearly universally recognized by the student body for their talents. At the same time there was a second tier of greatness, defined within particular groups. In the band it was the “first chair” kids. In sports it was the “starters.” Among the anti-social kids, it was the kid who could be the most anti-social.
We do not stop disputing which of us is considered the greatest when we reach adulthood. How does society generally define greatness today?
Jesus, knowing that the disciples were arguing about which of them was greatest, did something most surprising. He got up from the table; went to the door; and picked up the pitcher of water, towel, and basin that had been left there so the disciples could wash their feet as they entered the room.
None of them, apparently, had washed their own feet; and certainly none had thought about offering to wash the feet of their fellow disciples, or even the feet of Jesus. Performing such a task, like the meal preparation Jesus had sent Peter and John to make earlier that day, was the responsibility of a servant; and they were not servants—they were disciples.
To their great discomfort, Jesus sank to his knees and one by one washed their feet. To make sure they understood the meaning of his gesture, he said, in essence, “This is what true greatness looks like.”
By washing his disciples’ feet, the Son of God assumed the most humble of roles. Then he called all who would follow him to strive for that kind of greatness: to live their lives as humble servants. Long before the business world discovered the concept of “servant leadership,” Jesus was calling his followers to adopt that lifestyle.
Lord, you know that, like the disciples, I yearn to be considered great by others. Grant me a servant’s heart so that I may discover that true greatness is found in humility and service. Amen.
Adapted from 24 Hours That Changed the World: 40 Days of Reflection