February 17, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Greatest in the kingdom

See Luke 22:14-15 & 24-30, John 13:1-20

We are now at the Last Supper in this series of columns. Of the four Gospels, Luke’s and John’s introduce the meal most solemnly. Luke says that Jesus told his Apostles, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

Apparently, his mention of the kingdom set off sparks among the Apostles because Luke says, “Then an argument broke out among them about which of them should be regarded as the greatest.” The Gospels seldom present the Apostles in a favorable light, and here we see them at their most pathetic, arguing about which of them was the greatest just when Jesus told them that he was about to suffer. Perhaps seeing John reclining next to Jesus, just as John’s mother asked not long before, set off the argument.

How could Jesus not feel exasperated as often as he had tried to teach his disciples that the greatest in the kingdom was the one who served the others? He tried once more, telling them that the greatest among them had to like the youngest, the leader as the servant.

Yes, he said, he did intend to confer a kingdom on them. They not only would eat and drink at his table in his kingdom, as they were doing that evening, but also they would “sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.” He would, in effect, rule his kingdom through them.

Then he spoke directly to Peter, telling him that Satan wanted to sift Jesus’ disciples like wheat, but that Jesus had prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail and that he would strengthen his brothers. God would preserve Peter from false doctrine. Thus, the question of the greatest in the kingdom seemed to be settled.

But not quite. First, Jesus had to get his point across that the greatest in the kingdom is the one who serves. The leaders in his kingdom had to see themselves as servants. Drastic action was called for.

This time, Jesus did it with an acted parable: He washed his Apostles’ feet. He poured water in a basin, washed their feet and dried them with a towel he had wrapped around his waist. Could there be a more servile action? It could not be required of the lowliest Jewish slave, but here was their master washing their feet.

Naturally, Peter objected. He understood what Jesus’ action signified, but he couldn’t imagine someone in authority washing the feel of a subordinate. Then when Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me,” Peter went to the opposite extreme by saying, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”

Jesus then went back to verbal instruction. He told the Apostles plainly that he had given them a model to follow: What he had done to them, so they also must do. †


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