To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.
Daniel T. Niles
To understand any message, you have to know two things: who was speaking the message, and who the message was for. Having only one means you only see half the picture.
A few months ago, I realized I knew next-to-nothing about the culture in which Jesus lived, which really meant I didn’t know much about who Jesus was speaking to.
So, naturally, I did some reading.
One of the best books I read on the topic of Jesus’ home culture was Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes. Through a series of essays, Bailey put Jesus firmly in the culture in which he lived and communicated—a culture as alien to our own as ours will be to one 2,000 years in the future.
This year, I’m likely going to talk about a lot of things I learned from Mr. Bailey, who spent decades learning from scholars and teaching in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere.
(I also appreciate that he quotes non-Western theologians as often, if not more so, than their Western counterparts).
Here’s one of my favorite observations about Jesus’ teaching style.
“Can I Borrow Your Boat?”
Cephas was a regular guy doing alright for himself—he owned a fishing boat, had a business going with his friends and their dad. Then one day, his mother-in-law fell ill. Really ill. He heard there was a rabbi doing some healing in the area, so he asked him to visit his mother-in-law. The rabbi agreed, and Cephas’ mom made a full recovery.
Shortly afterward, Cephas spent all night fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Like every other fisherman in the region, he knew the best time to fish was in the deep waters at night, when the wild sea life came out to feed.
No luck that night though. Dawn broke with nothing to show for it.
As he and his partners cleaned the nets, the rabbi set himself up on the beach. He quickly attracted a crowd—a big one. The rabbi saw Cephas and asked him a favor—”Put out your boat a little bit so the crowd can hear me better!” Cephas, being a polite guy, can’t say no. This man just healed his mother-in-law!
Keep in mind, lending him the boat isn’t a matter of just putting the boat out and letting him stand in it. The shore of the Sea of Galilee has a fairly strong current—even today—so the rabbi had essentially asked Cephas to row in place so he could address the crowd. The exhausted, probably-cranky man complied. After all, it’s not every day a respected public figure gets in your boat.
And this is how Jesus invited Peter to join him in ministry.
“Ma’am, Could You Get Me a Drink?”
A little while later, Jesus and his students traveled through Samaria. At one point, they stopped at a well outside a village. Jesus sent his students into town to get some food while he waited at the well.
Wells are community resources, which meant everyone brought their own bucket to get water. If you wanted water, you attached your leather bucket to the hook and let it down. Jesus is waiting by the well, but for some reason he let his students take the only bucket (if they had one) into town.
While Jesus was waiting, a woman came out—alone in the middle of the day—to get some water.
Jesus Does the Unthinkable
Now, scholars and theologians have speculated about this woman’s social position for decades, but given the context, they all agree on one thing: she was very unpopular.
Gathering water was difficult work, so there were two times people collected water: early in the day before it got warm, and later in the evening as it cooled down. The village women would do this together—after all, lifting buckets of water necessitates an extra pair of hands.
There would be very, very little reason to collect water alone in the middle of the day. One of the common reasons? If you didn’t want to be seen, or the people in the village didn’t want to be seen with you. Doing arduous work alone is something Westerners take for granted—back then, a listener would not have failed to notice such a detail.
The woman walked up, expecting this man to do what any self-respecting man in that time and in that place would do: ignore her. In Jesus’ time, rabbis didn’t even speak to their wives in public—speaking to an unaffiliated woman, alone and in public? Unthinkable, the audience of John’s gospel likely thought.
And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does.
He doesn’t just speak to her—he asks for a favor.
“I’m thirsty—let me have some water from this well, please.”
It’s hard to overstate how completely incendiary this moment is. Jesus is committing several social sins at once: he’s speaking to a woman, in public, who is not only unrelated to him but is a Samaritan woman—a descendant of the people whom Jesus’ community bitterly regarded as usurpers of their faith and their heritage. And not only that, but he asks for her help.
There are layers to the nerves Jesus pressed in that moment.
(But maybe I’ll talk about that some other time).
Jesus openly challenges nearly every social attitude of his day to ask for water—and why? To open the conversation. He humbles himself because that’s how Jesus approached people. It’s how he approached Peter, it’s how he approached this woman (who, significantly, is commissioned to testify to his words), and it’s how he taught his students to approach others as well.
Only Servants Serve from Underneath
As Western Christians, we confuse the idea of service with charity.
Charity allows us to maintain our position. It empowers us to be imperious, magnanimous, and noble. It gives us a sense of power and control. We get to hold our crown while handing out of our generosity. Charity costs us something, but in return, we get the satisfaction of being able to offer charity—of being in a benevolent position above another person.
Charity is good and necessary; generosity is good and necessary. But as Frank Underwood puts it in House of Cards, “Generosity is its own form of power.”
Service means lowering yourself. It means recognizing that you’re at the mercy of another person, that they have something you don’t. Asking for help may not seem like a form of service, but it’s the only way anyone can become a servant—by recognizing that someone else has something we need.
Service is not only committing acts of generosity—it’s humbling ourselves so that we can give others the dignity of being generous.
I guarantee you that if I walked into a church tomorrow and said, “We’re going to hand out bags of food to hungry people, who wants to come?” there would be a good amount of volunteers who would feel comfortable with it. They might even feel good about it.
Now, if I said, “Tomorrow, we’re going to empty our bank accounts and then ask for people to feed us,” that would be far less popular. Why? Beyond letting go of our wealth, we’d be publicly throwing ourselves at other people’s mercy. Is there anything less American than admitting weakness and asking for help?
But that’s the test of true servanthood—the willingness to allow someone else to be your benefactor.
The Sacrifice of Servanthood Is Taking a Servile Position
Why do you think Jesus asked his disciples to travel with so little? Without any money? Is it possible that what Jesus models for us isn’t charity, but radical vulnerability—a posture that allows other people to take their place above ourselves?
That would be a sacrifice. That’s the sort of sacrifice Jesus embodied throughout the Gospels.
In the end, my point is this: Jesus initially entered people’s lives not as a teacher or a prophet, but as someone who asked for help. He was someone who recognized not just what he provided to others but humbly recognized what others could provide to him. I’m taking 1,200 words to say what Sri Lankan theologian Daniel T. Niles said in 11 words:
The glory of the Lion is the glory of the Lamb.