Developing a habit of overcoming social structures to serve is unnatural for us. We expect our food promptly at our restaurants, we expect our department stores to be maintained and feel a certain way, and we are shocked when our garbage does not magically disappear on trash day. All these ingrained expectations have left certain roles in our culture invisible and assumed servants to the status quo. Where would we be without food service workers, janitorial staff, and sanitation workers? Moreover, what would be the impact if we saw these various invisible roles as our responsibility when we entered a place to be served?
This is the sort of mindset Jesus' disciples wrestled with when they gathered for an evening meal before the festivities for the Passover would begin. The custom in their day was to enter the room where they would be eating and have a servant wash their hands and feet before sitting down to eat. This servant would not partake in the meal, but was instrumental in the success of a clean and satisfying experience. It is no surprise then that when Jesus, bearing the titles of "teacher" and "rabbi", arose and took the role of this invisible servant, the disciples were stunned and were even perturbed.
Having worked food service all through my theological education (9 years), I found myself filling the role of the invisible servant many times. As a waiter and barista, many customers had a tangible expectation that I was simply a means to their desired end. I felt very aware that I was nothing more than an apparatus to dispense their expected service. This is very much how the role of a servant would be seen in first century Palestine. Durning my food service years, I also found it strange when a movie star or politician would work a "common" job, they would have all sorts of publicity covering their "service" to others. It made their acts of service geared towards something else rather than service itself. I think some could take Jesus' actions in this passage as someone from a high status lowering himself for the sort of social attraction it would cause. However, knowing the heart of Christ displayed at the beginning of this passage (v1), not to mention the heart displayed throughout the gospel of John, I would argue for a different motive entirely. Jesus seems to be showing how invisible we keep the assumed servants in our societal systems. He points out how we both expect and ignore those who clean, make our clothing, pick our fruits and veggies, and serve us our coffee. Jesus illuminates how devalued we have made the role of a servant and tells us boldly, "unless I wash you, you won't have a place with me." (v7)
Food service comes with a rigid expectation: "the customer is king." This implies that no matter how the customer may perceive or treat the wait staff, serving the customer is the respective company's highest priority. This company wide priority becomes the obligatory duty of the wait staff, no matter their relationship with the customer. We see Jesus carry out his service to his disciples with the same sort of urgency, yet not out of obligatory duty, but out of deep love for them. No matter if it be Judas who would betray him, Peter who would deny him, or John the beloved disciples, Jesus end goal is to serve them all. The one they would soon hail as king (12:13) is serving them as if they were kings. Yet Jesus takes this even further. Unlike any customer service industry, Jesus' service includes acknowledging who is in need of being cleaned and who is not (v10). Jesus shows us that true service is not only for the sake of service itself. In stating "that not all of you are clean", Jesus opens a door for those in need of being cleaned to step forward and acknowledge their uncleanliness. It is an opportunity for repentance and redemption.
Jesus taking this role of an invisible servant in their society was too much for Peter as I imagine it would be too much for us. If a beloved mentor and friend came over and began taking out our trash and washing our dishes, we would probably get just as shocked and possibly offended by their actions. Why? Because, just like Peter, we see those acts of service as demeaning, trivial, and beneath their status. Perhaps not because of a system of hierarchy in place, but because of our own self-sufficiency. I can take out my own trash, clean my own dishes, and wash my own feet. The implication behind no servant being greater than his master or a messenger being greater than the one who sent him" (v16) is that servants and messengers are needed! The task of meeting needs should not be relegated solely to the self-sufficient individual no more than it should be to the foreigner or the poor. It is a corporate task out of love. As Jesus so eloquently personifies, the act of serving doubles as the message of the gospel. When we corporately take on the role of servants, not only do we understand what it is to be the lowest among us, but there is then not a single person among us who is not treated as the greatest. When that is truly understood and acted out in love, we are truly blessed (v17)
Those who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary made no mistake in tacking on verses 31b-35 to the end of this display of service by our savior. God being glorified in the Son and the Son being glorified in God is an endless display of righteousness at work. Jesus shows us that God is glorified in our act of serving one another as we have been served by him. The church is the body of the Son, armed with a water basin and towel. When we glorify the Son by serving as he did through his abiding love, we are also glorified in him by God. May we as the church always be willing to take the role of the invisible servant so that God may be magnified and glorified through Jesus Christ our Lord. For it is only by displaying his love that we will be truly identified and seen as his followers and God's people.