“The Son of Man came to serve (διακονέω), not to be served.” –Matthew 20:28
What if many American Christians, myself included, have managed to turn the paradigm act of humility, serving others, into an act of pride? What if we’ve corrupted the act of service in such a way that for many of us, in order to do what Jesus meant, we have to stop, at least for a while, doing what Jesus says?
Let me explain. In Matthew 20:28, we have the famous line: “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.” But is Jesus advocating for a specific act? Or for a way of handling power & authority? The context will help. Two of the disciples get their mommy (at least we assume this by the reaction of the other ten) to ask Jesus if they can be in power when Jesus becomes King.
Jesus responds this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God is a place where the great are those who give up their power, just as Paul so beautifully describes in Philippians 2. So is it possible that our acts of service can become a place not where we give up our power, but where we protect it?
Where do we see this?
We see it in all of us who gladly serve at the soup kitchen because it confirms we are the ones with the ladle and not the empty bowl.
We see it in all of us who gladly give money to the poor because it confirms that we are the ones with money and not the open hand.
In other words, so long as I make sure I am always the one helping, I can be assured that I am the one with, and you are the one without. I can be assured that our focus will be on your problems so that I can keep my veneer of comfort and security, with the added bonus of a good feeling in my heart for helping the “less fortunate.”
I contend that if we are truly going to imitate Jesus, we should learn to be with other human beings who are different than us. Not to save them, serve them, make them a project, but to see them for who they are and not be afraid to be associated with them, thrown in the same labeling, or seen on the same side of the soup line.
For in relationship with people, there is a balance between serving and being served, supporting the weaknesses of others and being supported in our own weakness.
This is what the Incarnation of Jesus means to me, who became and became associated with, humanity, leaving behind his divinity (Phil 2.) for the sake of relationship. So if we want to find a way to be like the Jesus who, although had cosmic social status, gave it up to be a servant, we would do better to find our example in the Jesus who allows the prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair in the middle of a social gathering. Maybe we sometimes we need to be served in order to serve.
So may we stop using endless “serving those less fortunate” experiences as a back-handed way of reminding ourselves that “at least we’re not like them” and instead start admitting our weaknesses, our need for help, and our vulnerability to those around us.
“In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs (διακονέω).” – Mark 15:41