As Jesus gathers with his disciples for one final dinner ‘before I suffer’, the air is thick with ironies.
One of them involves the status, stature, and deportment of those followers of his who will survive his extra-judicial murder. What is to become of these, disciples of a man who has been proclaimed a king in the manner of David but who has lived and is soon to die as a pauper? Will they be princes? Or slaves?
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
The answer seems clear. They are to be servants of all, for high status and the prerogatives of lords are anathema to those who would follow Jesus. As he has led them by—figuratively and literally—washing their feet, so their lives shall incarnate a servant’s destined humility.
Such willingness to self-abase in the service of others is familiar in the Jesus story. It would not be in the least surprising were Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to conclude on this note. However the memory that comes to us embedded and rehearsed in Luke’s gospel will not have it so. There is more to the story, for this truth alone is too simple.
You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
The service to which Jesus commends his band of brothers is not adequately framed by the language of slavery or of domestic servants. Their destiny is at the same time royal. They will both serve and rule.
Perhaps there was not time on the eve of Jesus’ arrest to expand upon this central irony of Christian identity. No doubt it was not the moment for such complexity, for the fear and failure of a lifetime were making their way to Gethsemane even as they broke final bread together.
Yet the biblical witness will find occasion to return to this paradoxical identity question with uncommon regularity.
Are those who follow Jesus servants? Are those who pledge him costly loyalty kings?
The answer, as so often, is yes.