Everybody, from the starry-eyed graduate to the seasoned business owner, wants to climb the “ladder of success.” After all, it’s the American dream. We step onto that shaky bottom rung with meager influence and income, and through hard work and determination, clamber up each rung until we reach the top. There, with power and paycheck, we survey the landscape like a proud rooster on the barn roof. Though once servants, we now are served. Though once seekers, we now are sought. Oh, the glories.
We often carry our ladder-climbing fixation right on into the Christian life. We see, or think we see, starched shirts perched at the top while their blue-collar brethren climb around beneath them. Ministry leaders breathe the higher, thinner air while childcare workers wipe noses on the bottom rung. Artsy types hang around the middle and homemakers, given their lack of salary and title, often share the lower rungs, where there can be jockeying for position as well.
Our inclination to climb makes words like service, submission, obedience, and humility less than appealing. They do not make the rooster’s feathers shine. Unless, of course, someone walks up and flips the ladder completely upside down.
That’s exactly what Jesus did, wreaking heavenly havoc on all the careful jockeying of our lives. His simple words, “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11) leave us dangling precariously, flailing to find our footing as our worldview goes for a spin. He didn’t just say it once either. Jesus, gentle friend and savior, seems also to be a paradigm smasher. After eating the last supper with his disciples, he addressed their power struggle by asking some leading questions:
“For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table?”
“Well no kidding,” they think to themselves. “That’s obvious. What’s the point?”
Then the ladder flip: “But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
It’s a lot to take in, for the disciples and for us. The Son of God, Ancient of Days, Lion of Judah, Star of the Morning, is a servant. He defines himself that way. He does the dirty work: washing untended feet, touching festering wounds, sleeping in fields, putting others’ needs before his own. He doesn’t claim the honor that he is due (Philippians 2:6). He doesn’t jockey and jostle. He picks up a towel and reaches for a dirty foot, laying out a new hierarchy of existence: the position of greatest honor is that of a simple servant. This is the new way, and the repercussions are enormous. Check in next time for Part Two, where we’ll consider a few practical applications.