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In a few days, a friend of mine gets out of jail. We and two other couples we are dear friends with will be splitting up housing, meals, rides, and job hunting to support him over the next three months.

This seems pretty Jesus-y, yes?

“The Son of Man came to serve (διακονέω), not to be served.” –Matthew 20:28

Well, lately, I’m not so sure. Because there’s something that feeds my ego when I help. So I’ve been thinking about the context of this passage. Two of the disciples get their mama (at least we assume this by the reaction of the other ten) to ask Jesus if they can be in power when Jesus becomes King.

Jesus responds this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In a culture that long has the social stigma of slavery, the difference between serving someone and being a servant can be lost on us. I’ll speak for myself when I say, I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want to serve the slaves but I don’t want to be one. I want to help the less fortunate but I don’t want to be less fortunate. Serving takes my time and energy but being a servant takes my identity and social status.

In other words, when I only ever want to do things for people and not with them, I have twisted serving into lording over.

We see it in all of us who gladly serve at the soup kitchen because it confirms we are the ones with the ladle and not the empty bowl.

We see it in all of us who gladly give money to the poor because it confirms that we are the ones with money and not the open hand.

If I am truly going to imitate Jesus, I should learn to be with, not afraid to be seen on the same side of the soup line. For in a relationship with people, there is a balance between serving and being served, supporting the weaknesses of others and being supported in our own weakness.

We even see this balance with Jesus, who not only came to serve in Matthew 20 but who allows the prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair in the middle of a social gathering in Luke 7. Maybe we sometimes need to be served to be like Jesus.

May I stop using endless “serving those less fortunate” experiences as a back-handed way of reminding myself that “at least I’m not like them” and start following Jesus’ example by courageously picking up the empty bowl to proclaim, “We are in this together.”

“In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs (διακονέω).” – Mark 15:41

This blog was originally posted in September 2015.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.