THE SERVANT GENERAL
ON SERVANT LEADERSHIP
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.
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
it was that when Jesus came to Peter to wash his feet, Peter
objected vehemently, “You will never wash my feet.”
Taking the lowest place
By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrated servant
leadership. Jesus took the lowest place.
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).
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)?
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.
What is servant leadership?
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.
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?
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
leadership is a posture that calls for humility and unconditional
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
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
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).
us take to heart the lesson that Jesus is teaching us. And
be assured, if you humble yourself, you will understand.
April 9, 2009
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