Selfishness or Servanthood?
The world is full of special interest people. There are dog people, cat people, swimming pool people, beach people, morning people, late night people, coffee people, tea people, hockey fans, country people, tennis people, golf people, snow skiing people, and water-skiing people. There are also bungee jumping people and accident-prone people.
There are breakfast people; and then there are those who don't remember what breakfast is anymore. There are sailboat people and power boat people, motorcycle people and car people. The list of interests is endless. It is this diversity of interests that makes our world such an interesting place.
But there are other people who have a special interest too. Their interest is not unique in any sense, and in fact, it is quite commonplace. I call it self-interest; and a lot of people have this interest.
Self-interest people make, running red lights, crowded parking lots, and rush hour traffic times all perilous places to be. If you drive the 401 highway there are also aggressive bumper riders and “hand signalers” that believe your car and the line of cars in front of you is their challenge to clear away. Perhaps you have experienced one of these life altering moments at the hands of one of these self-interest people.
A study was conducted to determine the length of time that the average person takes to get in his car and to vacate their parking space at the mall. After timing hundreds of cars and their drivers, it was determined that it took an average of thirty-two seconds for a driver to enter his car, adjust the seatbelt, check the rear-view mirror, make other adjustments, talk to their dog, and then leave the parking spot.
Now the above observation might be just a useless statistic, if it were not for the following observation. What was the amount of time required to accomplish the same task when another car is patiently waiting to take that vacated spot? When a driver knows that another car is waiting, it takes 39 seconds for them to vacate the same space. Seven seconds longer! It seems people delay moving their car, or hug their dog a little longer, just to let the other person waiting for their spot understand who's in control.
Self-interest people also take a heavy toll on marriages, parenting, sibling relationships, and friendships. Businesses are also affected. Management shouts concessions, while labor retorts we want more pay and less hours. Meanwhile, customers shop elsewhere because it is obvious the company is self-absorbed rather than customer intensive.
The same thing happens in churches where people put their own interests above others. Self-interest people end up causing others to look elsewhere because the church is self-absorbed. Paul admitted the prevalence of these people in Philippians 2:21, "For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” But Paul also pointed out a remedy – "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4)."
Self-interest people can inflict serious damage in churches. James says, "For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice (Jam. 3 :16)." Evil practice? Yes, evil practice. There is no end to the destructive carnage that self-interest people can cause. The word, evil, as used here can also mean foul and wicked. I hate to admit it, but I’ve witnessed many foul and wicked things from self-interest people.
Self-interest people run their lives by this principle – "If it makes me feel good, increases my net worth, improves my self-image, and doesn't put me out, then I'm in, if not, I pass.” This is exactly why organizations, workplaces, homes and churches suffer. Self-interest people are self-absorbed. They are not pretty. They care for no one but themselves. This was never what Jesus wanted to see in his followers.
As followers of Christ, we are supposed to have a servant’s heart. Servanthood it is not an option in the kingdom of God, it's a necessity. But it isn’t easy to break a self-interest mindset. Jesus encountered this mindset on numerous occasions with his disciples. In every instance he was quick to address this danger. It took him several attempts with his disciples before he finally got through to them. Let's take a look.
Attempt Number One:
In Mark 8:31-34, Jesus talked about his upcoming death. He spoke very plainly about this. But Peter took him aside and rebuked him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples while rebuking Peter at the same time. He said, “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” Then he added, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me."
Here is what stands out in this passage. The me-first mindset is not some psychological maladjustment to be corrected with a little therapy. Many have come to believe that a person who exhibits tendencies towards self-interest is just someone who has a psychological quirk in their personality. But Jesus saw right through Peter's self-interest to Satan himself! In other words, Peter's self-interests were being scripted by Satan himself. And let's not forget – it was Satan who started this whole self-interest thing in the first place.
While Peter may have been the immediate target of Jesus's rebuke, the text says that he “turned and looked at his disciples and then spoke to Peter. The message of "turning from your selfish ways, taking up your cross and following me" was meant for all of them.
Attempt Number Two:
In Mark 9:31-ff we read:
The Son of Man is going to be betrayed. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead." But they didn't understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant. After they arrived at Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples settled in the house where they would be staying.
Jesus asked them, "What were you discussing out on the road?" But they didn't answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. He sat down and called the twelve disciples over to him.
Then he said, "Anyone who wants to be the first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else." Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, "Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes my Father who sent me."
Instead of applying what Jesus taught earlier– "turn from their selfish ways"– they are now self-absorbed over which position of honour they would have in the new Kingdom.
When Jesus finally asked them what they were talking about, they kept quiet, and understandably so, because the last time someone displayed a selfish mindset, they were told, “get behind me Satan!”
So, again, Jesus gives them a lesson on servanthood. As soon as he finishes telling them about the kingdom being like a small child, it appears that everything went right over their heads. Why? Because they never engaged him over the implications of this current object lesson.
Instead, they became "spiritual" and immediately changed the subject to questioning the legitimacy of someone who was casting out demons in his name (See Mark 9:38-40). Their response revealed a total arrogance and self-centeredness – "we told him to stop because he wasn't in our group". Once again, the meaning of servanthood totally escaped them.
Attempt Number Three:
One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.
No wonder Jesus was upset with them. Their indignant attitude confirmed, once again, that their self-interests were more important than the parents who wanted Jesus to bless their children. The previous object lesson involving children had went right over their heads; and now, this encounter proved no different. Their selfish mindsets were truly a stronghold!
Attempt Number Four:
In Mark 10:35-37 we read:
He said, “Look, we are going to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be turned over to the leading priests and the teachers of the law. They will say that he must die, and they will turn him over to the non-Jewish people, who will laugh at him and spit on him. They will beat him with whips and crucify him. But on the third day, he will rise to life again."
Then James and John, sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want to ask you to do something for us." Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you? “They answered, “Let one of us sit at your right side and one of us sit at your left side in your glory in your kingdom." . . . .
When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So, Jesus 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 be the slave of everyone else.
Talk about calloused hearts! Jesus had just poured out his soul to them about his impending suffering and death. Where was their compassion? Their empathy? Instead, we see nothing but a selfish agenda and a complete indifference to the plight of Jesus. Self-interest people are like that! Notice their words, "Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask?" Can their self-interest get any more obvious than this? Someone once described an egotist as someone who is me deep in conversation. That describes James and John. Their request was an arrogant display of self-aggrandizement.
Jesus doesn't just take James and John aside to talk with them and he doesn't commend the other disciples for their righteous indignation towards James and John. Most likely, the rest of the disciples were indignant because James and John beat them to the question. The text reads, "Jesus called them together." This simply means they all needed to hear, once again, what servanthood was all about.
Surely, by now, the meaning of servanthood is becoming clearer. But remember, self-interest people have the full cooperation of Satan's minions behind them. Self-interest mindsets can be extremely difficult strong-holds. This is why Paul followed the example of Jesus in attempting to break these destructive strongholds. He said in 2 Cor.10:5, “We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.” This is what Jesus was doing with the disciples – he was trying to destroy their proud selfishness because it was a real obstacle to their spiritual growth.
The Final Attempt:
The final attempt by Jesus to help the disciples understand the meaning of servanthood appears in John 13:4-17. It is the story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. Normally, as Jewish custom would have it, a servant would have been prepared in advance to wash the disciple's feet upon them entering the room.
But seeing that their busy Lord had overlooked this little detail, they all just walked into the room, right past the bowl and pitcher of water, reclined on the floor, and stuck their dirty, smelly, feet under the noses of their fellow disciples. Of course, they all had to jockey for that perfect picture, knowing that one day someone would paint a picture of all of them sitting at the table with Jesus.
When the meal was over, Jesus let them know that this little detail wasn't really overlooked after all. Jesus took up the pitcher and basin of water and sought to teach them a final lesson on servanthood.
After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.
Jesus finishes his lesson by saying, "Now that you know these things". Did they finally get it? I think there were some stunned looks and open mouths that day. I am certain they were astonished by what Jesus had just modelled for them. He took up the role of a servant before their very eyes and an important truth had finally sunk in.
Learning about servanthood wasn't easy for the disciples. It won’t be easy for us either. But servanthood was something that really mattered to Jesus. He wanted his disciples to grasp this very important truth. It's a lesson we must all learn. If we want healthy churches we need more servants.