24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the 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. 28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 31 Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
In today’s passage we come to another time in the relationship between Jesus and The Disciples when one wonders if Jesus didn’t roll His eyes – just this once. We have witnessed Him share the Seder meal with these men and explain that His very body and blood will be given for them. The Apostle John also writes of another event that took place during this meal and that was of Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve – washing their feet!!! Here is an act of total and complete servitude. After all of this takes place we find the Disciples discussing their relative greatness. (Insert eye roll here.) It’s even “a dispute”. They are literally arguing over which one of them is the greatest.
The media recently noted the passing of boxer Muhammad Ali. As I’ve never been a boxing fan he meant very little to me, but I do remember hearing him on the news when I was a kid say the words “I am the greatest.” Even then, my response to that was “wow!” You have to be pretty confident to say those words out loud. But these were the words the disciples were speaking to one another after having their feet washed by the Master. Their inability to “get it” was astounding.
We walk a fine line between self-aggrandizement and humility. We must note that low self-esteem is not the goal. The opposite of pride is not low self-esteem. The opposite of pride is humility. You do not have to think poorly of yourself in order to be humble. At the moment of this argue, humility has flown out the door. Their clean feet had been forgotten. Sin took over. As per His entire ministry, Jesus was dining with sinners. Before we roll our eyes too many times at these guys, let’s remember that Jesus dines with US – we too are sinners. God often chose the lesser to serve and lead. The Old Testament is rife with examples of this spiritual fact; Jacob became the leader over Esau, Judah becomes the family leader over his three older brothers, David is number 8 in a line of 8 boys, and John the Baptist who was Jesus’ older cousin served Him through baptism, recognizing the Master.
Then Jesus lets Peter (and probably the whole group) in on a little bit of information. These “great” guys were about to be tested by Satan himself. And Peter – at least – was going to fail. Any declarations of greatness were about to be proven false. Peter will become the leader of this group of soon to be Apostles when Jesus dies, but first he must come to grips with his own pride. Satan can be quite an effective tool in that endeavor in the hands of our All Powerful God.
The struggle to be recognized as “the greatest” is ubiquitous in today’s cultural ethos. If you aren’t the greatest, then you’re nothing if the world is to be believed. That simply isn’t the case. The God of the Universe, who lowered Himself to wash feet, is the greatest and yet sees that greatness played out in servanthood. He is our role model. His ultimate service of conquering our sin on the cross frees us from the need for greatness and instills in us instead a deep desire to serve others with our own lives. And in that service a true witness to the love of God is shared.