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(Part 7)


In today’s reading (Jn 13:1-15), we have one of the clearest lessons on servant leadership, taught and demonstrated by Jesus himself. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

People during Jesus’ time traveled by foot on unpaved roads. They stepped on dust, mud and dung. When entering into homes, it was customary to wash their feet. It was such a lowly task that it would not even be required of the lowliest slave in the household.

Thus it was that when Jesus came to Peter to wash his feet, Peter objected vehemently, “You will never wash my feet.” (Jn 13:8a).

Taking the lowest place

By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrated servant leadership. Jesus took the lowest place.

At the end, Jesus gave his lesson on servant leadership. “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (Jn 13:13-14).

Jesus knew well enough the fallen human nature’s inclination to power and position. This would be especially true of those given leadership positions. Had not an argument in fact broken out among the apostles as to whom should be regarded as the greatest (Lk 22:24)?

Jesus would be using his apostles powerfully for the spread of Christianity and the building of the Church. They would be great missionaries and founders of Christian communities. They would occupy places of prominence in the Church hierarchy, with Peter becoming the first pope. It was time to impress upon them the true meaning of servant leadership. It was to be a lesson they would never forget.

Servant leadership

What is servant leadership?

First, it does not belittle the position of being a leader. Jesus affirmed the apostles’ recognition of him as teacher and master, saying, “rightly so, for indeed I am.” (Jn 13:13). Such positions of leadership are important in the work of the Church. We need not be apologetic or embarrassed in being recognized as leaders.

But second, it recognizes that to be a leader is to be a servant. As Jesus said, “I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet” (Jn 13:14a).

What does it mean for a leader to be a servant?

Jesus “took off his outer garments” (Jn 13:4a). Our outer garments are often our expressions of position, power and acclaim. It might be the expensive branded shirt, the medals and insignia, or the bejeweled cape. Some of these might have been given to us as well-deserved expressions of appreciation and honor. But when we serve, we shed these. We do not stand on privilege and pomp. We are just servants.

Jesus “took a towel and tied it around his waist.” (Jn 13:4b). It is not a sword or a gun that we have around out waist, which are instruments of power and domination. Rather, it is a towel, a standard tool of servants. When we serve, even as we do exercise authority and indeed power, we are not authoritarian or dictatorial or domineering.

Jesus knelt before his apostles to be able to wash their feet. Jesus literally took the lowest place. Jesus humbled himself before those who were his subordinates. When we serve, no task is too menial for us.

Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (Jn 13:5). What Jesus did was degrading work. It was also an allusion to his humiliating death on the cross. Jesus did not look to acclaim or glory which he richly deserved. Rather, he embraced the cross, with all its pain and shame. When we serve, our only concern should be those whom we serve, and we look not to our own comfort and privilege. We serve simply in order that those we serve may be refreshed, cared for and loved. And if ever such service causes us great difficulty and even pain, then it is cause for rejoicing.

Jesus washed the feet of even his betrayer Judas. Jesus “knew who would betray him” (Jn 13:11a), but he washed the feet of Judas anyway. When we serve, we do not discriminate against those who do not like us, or who do not respect us, or who have done us wrong.

Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (Jn 13:8b). The ultimate aim of our service is to help bring people to their eternal reward. Our service is centered and founded on Christ. Our pastoral care is intended to help people grow in holiness and righteousness unto the Lord. We extend to people the love of Jesus, in order that they might grow in that love. We help bring them to their true relationship as children of the Father, being able to take hold of their eternal inheritance.

A lesson to be learned, a model to be followed

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to give them a lesson they would never forget. Though washing of the feet is done in churches every Holy Thursday, it is not meant to be done literally for those who are servant leaders. Though there might be occasions that will call for it, we do not normally go around actually washing the feet of those whom we serve. The “washing of feet” is not external but rather an internal disposition of the heart.

Servant leadership is a posture that calls for humility and unconditional loving service.

Because this is not easy to do, because the temptation to pride and authoritarianism is something that will always beset us, Jesus needed to demonstrate what he wanted us to learn. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (Jn 13:15). In his call to service as leaders, Jesus now directs us, “you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (Jn 13:14b).

We ought to realize what a great privilege it is to be given the opportunity to serve. Because Jesus loves his people, he touches their lives, even directly without the intervention of others. But Jesus calls us to service perhaps not so much for the good of others so that they might become pleasing to God (though using human instruments certainly is God’s way), but for us to have the opportunity to be pleasing to God.

Jesus says, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over” (Jn 13:10a). People can be purified and can attain to holiness without us. But God gives us such people to have their feet washed, so that we may have the opportunity to do so. When we serve, it is for our good as well as for the good of those whom we serve.

Such servant leadership is a radical overturning of the wisdom of the world. We might object like Peter. We might find the demands of servant leadership unreasonable or even unacceptable. But Jesus tells us, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” (Jn 13:7).

Let us take to heart the lesson that Jesus is teaching us. And be assured, if you humble yourself, you will understand.

Holy Thursday
April 9, 2009

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