Trying to harmonize the gospel accounts at this point is a little sticky. I get the impression that things were not always told in chronological order and that there were little asides thrown in. This passage in Luke, in my opinion, is one of them.
It says that at the meal that the disciples started arguing with each other about who among them was the greatest. I don’t know how this argument started, but at a guess, it started when they were deciding the seating arrangements after arriving at the upper room to celebrate the Passover. In their culture, the person sitting to the right of Jesus would be considered the most important, and the person sitting to his left would be second most. And the further you sat away from Jesus, the less important you were considered.
And so they were probably arguing about who should sit next to Jesus. Peter may have been saying, “Hey I’m the leader of all you guys. I should sit there.” John may have replied, “Yeah, but Jesus loves me more.” Even Judas might have gotten into the act. “Everyone knows I’m the most important. I handle all the money.”
How long Jesus watched this, I don’t know, but perhaps after everyone finally settled down into their places, with some still grumbling about where they were sitting, Jesus did something that shocked them all.
It was customary in situations like this meal, that someone would wash the feet of the others. With everyone wearing sandals on dirt roads, feet could get pretty filthy. Usually a servant would do the washing, but in circumstances where a servant wasn’t present, typically it was the lowest person on the totem pole who would do this. John, being the youngest, might have been expected to do so. But he apparently somehow managed to weasel his way right next to Jesus (John 13:23) and was not about to give up his place to do a “servant’s job.” And after this big blowup, none of the others were inclined to do so either.
Jesus could have rebuked them. But instead, Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” (John 13:1)
He got up, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and started washing their feet and drying them.
How embarrassed the disciples must have been that Jesus was doing the job that one of them should have been doing.
After Jesus had finished, he sat down and asked them,
Do you understand what I have done for you…You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. (John 13:12-14)
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
He then concluded,
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:15-17)
What was Jesus telling them? These were the men that Jesus had chosen to have great responsibility. The day will come when they will sit on thrones and judge the 12 tribes of Israel. They will have the privilege of sitting at Jesus’ table and eating and drinking with him. (Luke 22:28-29)
But as he had pointed out earlier, leadership is not about lording it over people. It’s about servanthood. Jesus served them by washing their feet. Jesus served them and all of us by dying for our sins.
So now he tells us that as leaders we are to do the same. And Jesus tells us that the true blessing of leadership comes not from all the “privileges” we receive as leaders. It comes not from exercising our authority over others and telling them what to do. But rather it comes from serving as Jesus did. That’s what leadership is all about.
How do you see leadership? As being served? Or as serving others?