For anybody to fight about who is the greatest at any time is a disgrace. For the disciples of Jesus to fight about who is the greatest is especially ludicrous, making one wonder if they had understood a word Jesus had said. Very possibly they hadn’t. That they should fight over who is the greatest at table the night before Jesus died is beyond ludicrousness. If they had fought in this way after Jesus had washed their feet, as recounted in John, then their fight is transfinitely ludicrous.
Jesus shows transfinite patience to the disciples by not acting the way most of us in authority would. An argument among people under our authority as to who is the greatest has the potential to spill over into a dispute with the one in authority over the same question. But Jesus explains that it is the Gentiles who wish to exercise lordship over others and it should not be that way with them. Stepping on toes and maybe even necks is what most worldly authorities would have done in Jesus’ position but that is precisely what Jesus did not do. There is an edge to Jesus use of the word “benefactors” for those practicing lordship; such people used their benefactions more to assert their superiority and social control than to be charitable to others. Jesus goes on to say that he has come among the disciples as one who serves, not one who lords it over them.
Our patron saint, Pope Gregory the Great, did not coin the phrase that the Pope is the servant of the servants of God, but he was the first to make extensive use of the phrase and thus make it such a quotable quote through the ages. The phrase certainly picks up the meaning of Jesus’ words to the apostles as captured in Luke.
A deeper sign of Jesus’ infinite patience with his disciples (and us) is his assurance that they will sit on twelves thrones to judge the tribes of Israel. This assurance is startling since it seems to go counter to what Jesus had just been talking about. But does it? If being a ruler means being a servant, as Jesus suggests and Gregory the Great averred, then maybe sitting on a throne to judge a tribe of Israel is not such a good deal for the judge. We tend to think that being a judge means being judgmental; that judging the Twelve Tribes of Israel means accusing them of their wrongdoings. But what if a judge is a servant? In his response to the disciples’ infighting, Jesus is surprisingly unjudgmental, although he makes it clear that they haven’t gotten it right just yet. Jesus continues to serve them through his example, such as washing their feet and leading them gently but firmly to a new way of seeing the world and, more importantly, living in it.
The thing is, Jesus didn’t judge the disciples (and us) by browbeating them; Jesus judged them by serving them humbly. The twelve tribes of Israel is an expression for a renewed Israel, Gentiles and Jews alike. Judging them, then, means serving them the way Jesus served them and the way Jesus serves us. It is our acts of loving service that will judge all people who exercise lordship by browbeating others. The Pope isn’t the only one called to be a servant of the servants of God. All of us are so called. The trouble with calling Jesus the King of Kings is that we are tempted to swell with pride with being part of this imperial court. We do much better to call Jesus the Servant of Servants.