A Footwasher to the Footwashers
by Ken Barnes
My Boys Are Good Boys
The mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, respectfully approached Jesus. She had what she thought was a small request. “In your kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on the right and the other on the left” (Matt. 20:21 NLT). Many have noted that only a Jewish mother could make such a request. She wasn’t asking much, only that one could be the assistant savior and the other the associate Lord. Jesus must have thought that he had heard it all now.
Jesus pondered for a few seconds, and then gazed into their eyes with a look of loving rebuke. “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” James and John confidently chimed in, “Oh yes, . . . we are able!” (v. 22). Their response proved they were pretty “clueless in Judea”.
The other ten disciples looked at each other in disbelief; they could not believe their ears. Mama had been politicking for her sons. They were beside themselves and reacted with indignation. (v. 24). They were indignant probably because they wanted those positions themselves. Pride and vanity have a tendency to bring to the surface more pride and vanity. So, we see the picture. The disciples were jockeying for position and working one-upmanship. They were a pretty ratty bunch.
The First Shall Be Last and the Last, First
Talk about a teachable moment. Jesus, the master teacher, was not going to miss this opportunity. He hurriedly called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave” (v. 25-27).
Wow, what a paradigm change. You can just imagine the puzzled looks on their faces. He had just described to them an upside-down leadership style. If you want to be a leader, become a servant; do what others are not willing to do. If you want to be first among the leaders, become a slave (a bond servant). Not embraced with a legalistic obligation, but born of a free choice motivated by love. In this commitment there was no free agency; it was a lifetime of voluntary indentured service.
Remember, the Pharisees perpetrated the model of religious leadership of the day. They loved the best place in the synagogue. They loved to be noticed in the market place. “Hello, Rabbi.” The disciples also must have been tempted to think; it will be nice when our movement succeeds to have the best seats and have people affectionately say, “greetings, men of God”. But after this little discourse by Jesus, they might have been thinking, maybe I should rethink my commitment to this leadership thing.
Finally, Jesus revealed to them the hinge that would support this radical service. That hinge would be the willingness to give up their lives. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 28). At the core of all authentic service is always a relinquishment. No, for most of us it will not be our physical lives, but in true service there is always the aspect of giving up what we want, to do what he wants. How did this teaching go over with his disciples? Let’s fast-forward to the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth to answer this question.
The Secret Weapon
The scene is the last Passover meal that Jesus would share with the men he had picked to carry on his work here on earth. He looked at his disciples with love in his heart, but understood that they are still a needy bunch. He needed an object lesson that would demonstrate the leadership principles previously outlined. His disciples had been with him three and a half years. “Look, the Lord is doing it again, another miracle”, they exclaimed. “That little girl is breathing again. He just touched his mouth and the man could speak. Amazing, even the seas obey him.” They had seen it all; yet, it hadn’t brought the change in their lives the Lord had sought. He needed a secret weapon that would not only change them, but also be a tool to reach the world. This was the last interaction with his disciples to etch upon their minds the image by which he was to be remembered. What would it be?
They have just finished eating and every eye in the room was trained on Jesus. He reached down for a servant’s towel and they gasped. The disciples, with wide-open eyes and puzzled faces, thought; what is he doing? “Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end. It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him” (John 13:1-5 NLT).
That night he must have shaken the very Espirit de Corp of Hell. Demons must have shuttered when they pondered what would happen if this mindset replaced the mentality of the world—this system of the world that is under the “power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), which says you are important according to position, possessions, or posture in life. Jesus blew a hole right in the center of this mentality by the most valuable taking the role of the least valuable.
A Footwasher to the Footwashers
I worked with Youth With a Mission (YWAM) for 17 years, eight of those in Kona, Hawaii, where Loren and Darlene Cunningham, co-founders of YWAM, lived. On several occasions I heard Darlene say that God had called her to be a “footwasher to the footwashers.” When Loren needed to be away to take care of the vast responsibilities God had given him, Darlene was home taking care of the children, always with a positive attitude. I watched her spend untold hours counseling and encouraging those of us who were called to “stay with the stuff.” We needed encouragement. Being logistical workers and not directly reaching the lost, we sometimes viewed ourselves as second-class missionaries. Darlene encouraged us by speaking worth and value into our lives both in relation to who we were and what we did. Through her life and example, she helped us esteem the high position of service to which God had called us.
I think we might be a bit surprised when God gives out rewards for our earthly deeds (Matt. 16:27). We might find high on his list of tasks, child-rearing responsibilities, washing socks, or wives championing their husbands even though it placed them out of the glow of the limelight. I would not be the least bit surprised if on that day we have some shocked men (unlike Loren who always honored Darlene) when they finally realize that in serving God, it is not the height of the task or even its breadth that impresses God. It is the depth of our love for Christ that motivates us to serve, which catches the eye of our Father. To the many faithful spouses of ministry leaders I say: the eyes of the Lord are upon you, and he is impressed.
And, of course, our honor and service must go first to Jesus Christ, the ultimate footwasher to the footwashers.
Ken Barnes the author of “The ChickenFarm and Other Sacred Places” YWAM Publishing