We get it backward all the time. We desire the wrong things regularly. Instead of looking for ways to serve, most of us get caught up in seeking roles that will advance ourselves. We want to be the boss, to have the shining moments, and to reap the benefits. That’s how the world defines success. But Scripture paints a different picture of the nature of real greatness.
In the end, someone has to be in charge. If no one takes the responsibility to look ahead and make strategic plans, then a company, family, or church will miss opportunities and often find itself unprepared to meet the future. Having leaders, and being a leader, is a good thing.
The danger of being in charge, though, is that one gets used to being looked up to and comes to believe the hype. When people congratulate a leader on a good decision, it is easy for the leader to begin to think that she is the important one and somehow more valuable to the world than the janitor, the clerk, or the unemployed.
There’s no question that Jesus is the greatest human ever to live. Yet, he lived a lowly life and consistently put others before himself.
His disciples, who failed just as often as we do, didn’t pick up Jesus’ subtle leadership example. Therefore, after several years of following him, Jesus had to explain his foundational leadership principles in simple terms.
In Luke 22:24-30, the disciples began to argue about who was the most important among them. This comes right on the heels of the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Context informs us the disciples had just been witness to a celebration of the ultimate sacrifice and came away from it wondering who would be the most important.
A parallel account of the Last Supper in John 13 describes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In the events surrounding the argument about which of the disciples was the greatest, Jesus—who is the greatest—demonstrated what true greatness is like. True greatness looks like taking a filthy foot into your hands and washing it clean.
As Jesus says, “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:26b-27).
Putting it to Work
Most of us will never rise to the level of CEO of a major corporation. However, many will have opportunity to fill leadership roles at work, in the home, or at church. Jesus shows us how we can fill those positions with humility.
At the same time, he shows us something that subverts every leadership structure in the world. He shows that the person with the smallest, most menial role in an organization can be among the greatest.
In other words, the janitor can become the greatest in the organization by serving faithfully, with a cheerful heart. The administrator can be the greatest by being careful, generous, and charitable in doing each task.
Does this mean that the CEO should push brooms in order to serve his employees?
Not really. In this enacted parable, Jesus uses a particular action to provide visible evidence of the central attitude of service. In reality, the CEO will not add as much value to the company by sweeping as by making informed decisions. The janitor may not have the information or wherewithal to determine if an acquisition is the proper move for the company.
Instead, the servant attitude causes someone to ask, whatever their position, how their skills and abilities can best meet the needs of others. This means that sometimes a manager may end up doing grunt work, but that most of the time she will find herself managing. It means that someone might ask the assembly line workers how to optimize their workspace, but the most frequent activity is likely to be manufacturing products.
The key is the attitude that is looking beyond personal gain to the service of others. Whether at work, at home, or in the community, the person who looks beyond himself to the needs of others is leading in creating a culture of service and selflessness. This means that the real leaders in an organization aren’t always the people at the top of the org chart.
It seems backwards, but the greatest among us are those who seek the interests of others before their own.