Several years ago our family was traveling from New York to the Midwest. We alerted a former friend from law school and his wife that we would like to stop by to see them. They expected us to stay with them overnight, but we decided to check into a motel, not wanting to “impose” upon them. They were offended, interpreting our decision as a rejection of their offer of hospitality.
When Jesus came to Peter at the Last Supper to wash his feet, Peter said, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (John 13:8)
How hard it is for us to accept being served by someone in authority, particularly when the service involves a menial task! A servant serves his master. An employee serves his or her boss. Jesus, the master and teacher, was turning that paradigm upside down. Peter was the first to proclaim Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16:16) How could he allow the Son of God to wash his feet? Unthinkable!
From earliest childhood, we are taught to be self-sufficient. A young child proudly proclaims, “I did it by myself.” One of the challenges of a disabling illness or injury is having to depend on someone else to do things for you that you would ordinarily do yourself.
Like so many of Jesus’ words and actions, his example offers multiple lessons for us. While we need to be willing to receive service, it is just as important for us to serve. When the disciples were arguing about whom among them was the greatest, Jesus told them, “Whoever wishes to be great among you, shall be your servant.” He also reminded them, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26, 28)
In David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, he tells the following story. At a special reception Truman held for Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Peace Conference near the end of World War II, Sergeant Eugene List, an American concert pianist, played a Chopin waltz. List asked if someone in the audience would be good enough to turn the pages. Truman jumped to his feet, waived off another volunteer and did the job himself. In a letter to his wife, List later wrote, “Imagine having the President of the United States turn the pages for you!…But that’s the kind of man the President is.”
May we choose to follow both lessons from Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples – having a desire to love and serve the people in our lives, and responding with gracious acceptance when being served by others.
How willing are you to be served?