So there’s this famous verse in the Bible where Jesus says he came “not to be served but to serve.” It’s a verse that crept out of the Bible and into literature and even schools—when I was in high school, the Latin version of this saying was our motto. For me, it became a nice saying, a nice ideal. But recently these words have puzzled me. I’ve been thinking about what these words actually mean.
Jesus did indeed serve others, but he also allowed himself to be served. There’s the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha toils in the kitchen while Jesus is teaching and presumably Jesus allows Martha to serve him dinner afterwards. There’s the story of the woman with perfume who pours it at Jesus’ feet and serves him. He reclines at the table on various occasions—Simon the Pharisee serves him dinner, he goes to parties.
Jesus is also the most consistent human being I know. He does what he says. He lives out his teaching. But on this point he seems inconsistent. Why did the guy who said he was there not to be served but to serve let other people serve him, repeatedly?
Here’s what I think:
One, I think Jesus meant that he didn’t come to be superior to others but rather to be right alongside us, with us.
Two, I think he knew that one form of superiority comes in the unwillingness to be served. When we are unwilling to receive anything from others, we cut ourselves off from them.
Three, I think Jesus let other people serve him because sometimes that was the more humble, generous, kind, and human thing to do. It honored their gifts and their offerings. It established reciprocal relationships.
The bottom line is that Jesus both taught and embodied love, and love is about both giving and receiving.
Which means for those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus, sometimes we need to humble ourselves by serving others, and sometimes we need to humble ourselves by being served.