Everyone 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 fixation with ladder climbing right into the Christian life, mentally categorizing leaders and church members into top, middle, and bottom-rung positions. We certainly know where we want to end up! 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.
The Least Is the Greatest
That’s exactly what Jesus did, wreaking havoc on all the careful jockeying in the lives of all he encountered. 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, so typical of our own, 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” (see 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 is due him. 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. Let’s consider a few.
Aspirations for Leadership
There is a lot of talk in the church these days about leadership. Conferences abound on how to teach the Bible, lead groups, and exert influence, and God’s Word affirms these noble tasks (1 Timothy 3:1). We need teaching contexts to grow in our love for God and his Word, and being equipped to study and teach is vitally important for the body of Christ.
But as we register for another leadership training course, should we consider the positioning of our ladders? Are we remembering that up is down and down is up? What if, in our quest not to be left behind at the dirty sink or broom closet, we forget that those places are dripping with opportunities to delight our Lord?
If we truly believe Jesus’s words, can we reach for that next rung of greater servanthood and humility with as much zeal and enthusiasm as we reached for worldly acclaim in the old days? Does a request to empty trash cans at church excite us as much as an invitation to teach a seminar or lead a team? Maybe it should. If we are called to teach seminars, let’s do it with joy and faith, not shirking our call out of false humility, but let’s also remember that God is impressed not by a title, but by a servant’s heart. May our aspirations reflect that truth.
“The greatest among you shall be your servant” should change what and whom we admire. While humanity moons over physical beauty, confident style, thick wallets, and smooth speech, God shrugs. Meanwhile, he is starstruck by the tired parent who cooks another family dinner, the CEO who delays his business lunch to care for an employee, and the pimply kid who empties the dishwasher to surprise his mom. Now that’s gorgeous.
Who are our heroes? Is there someone right under our nose who exhibits true greatness in God’s eyes? Look hard—they may be prominent and praised or virtually invisible. Either way, that’s a person to emulate. Is it your pastor who cheerfully greets a critical church member? Is it the woman who has helped in the special needs class for years? Whoever it is, ask him about his joy in serving, draw her out about her willingness to jump in where needed, and join them in their efforts to serve like Christ. God will meet you there.
Usually, worldly success and the American dream come with stuff. “Moving up” requires bigger homes, bigger tech, bigger wardrobes, and bigger degrees. Proverbs assures us that wise living often does bring wealth (Proverbs 10:4) and wise people do seek knowledge (Proverbs 18:15), but again, Jesus doesn’t seem unduly impressed by earthly honors. Remember, this is the man who didn’t have a place to lay his head. Jesus “moved up” not to the corner office, but to the cross. On purpose.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). That’s our Savior. Our hero. And he sits, not just on the top rung of the rightly positioned ladder, but at the right hand of God himself. Worldview, be adjusted. Our Servant King calls us to this new life, which shines not with the crass gleam of vainglory, but with the breathtaking splendor of the real thing.
BETWEEN US GIRLS: WALKS AND TALKS FOR MOMS AND DAUGHTERS
Between Us Girls by Trish Donohue teaches mothers and daughters a new way to communicate and starts them on a wonderful, lifelong journey of getting to know one another better and learning to love their Savior more.