This article, by the hugely influential John N Collins whose work has been a game changer for the diaconate, can be found in the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal https://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2020-44-SEI-Journal-Winter.pdf
Deacons are all familiar with the Lord’s saying in the Gospel according to Luke, ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ For this reflection I have drawn on the slightly different translation in the New English Bible of 1961, ‘Yet here am I among you like the servant,’ but I have changed the word ‘servant’ to ‘waiter’.
The New English Bible is not much used these days, but at this point I think it hit the mark. I changed ‘servant’ to ‘waiter’, however, because I want to emphasize the focus Luke maintains throughout this scene. That focus is ever so sharply on a group of people at the closing stage of an important and formal meal. And I like very much the way the New English Bible captures the shock value in what Jesus says. ‘Yet here am I among you like […]’ Obviously, he is about to tip the scales, to say something unexpected, something challenging whose import is critical for his confused companions.
When, by contrast, we turn to our contemporary version, ‘but I am among you as one who serves’, the table scene tends to slip from view and we easily begin to consider a broader scenario where Jesus is reminding us of all kinds of serving that he has engaged himself in and now sends us out too. The earliest English translators had no inclinations in this direction. They kept the attention very much on the meal. Both John Wyclif (1380) and William Tyndale (1526) have Jesus and his disciples sitting ‘at meat’ — in 1611 the Authorized Version retained this — and the two figures Jesus introduces into the scene are ‘he that sittith at the mete’ and ‘he that mynystrith’, that is the table attendant or waiter. Jesus then turns things around with — as Wyclif put it — ‘I am in the middle of you as he that mynystrith.’ In taking up Jesus’s saying for a reflection, we will keep the same table scene in view.
Helping us here is the way Luke has structured what we call the Last Supper, although the word ‘supper’ is something of a distraction. This antique word ‘supper’ speaks of an evening meal but, as the dictionary describes it, a ‘light and informal’ one, which is not at all what Luke aims to present. Like Mark and Matthew, Luke is particular about establishing the character of the meal as a Passover. Disciples are sent into Jerusalem to make the preparations. Of the Passover itself, however, with its lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs, we hear virtually nothing, but that is of little matter as we hear the emotive expression of Jesus’s ‘earnest’ desire ‘to eat this Passover’ with his disciples before he suffers (Luke 22. 15).
With the mention of the suffering — a salient feature of Jesus’s earlier warnings during their long journey up to Jerusalem (Luke 9. 22 and 44; 13. 33–34;18. 31–33) — a looming tragedy at once sets its frame around the whole of the proceedings. Even as these conclude Jesus identifies himself as the Suffering Servant of the later Isaiah; he is to be ‘reckoned with transgressors’ (Luke 22. 37), a clear reference to Isaiah 53. 12: ‘he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’
This is the destiny Luke has set before Jesus from the moment the prophet Simeon held him as a baby and recognized in him ‘a sign that will be spoken against’ (Luke 2. 24). It is the destiny Jesus himself grasped on the mountain when he was talking with Moses and Elijah about the ‘exodos’ — the epochal transformative passage obscured in many translations — he would complete in Jerusalem (Luke 9. 31). Luke is singular in making this striking reference to Jesus’s death and resurrection in terms of the constitutive saving action that defined Israel. While the NRSV translates Luke’s Greek word exodos as ‘departure’, the Good News Bible felt obliged to spell out its broad theological implications in the following paraphrase: ‘Moses and Elijah […] talked with Jesus about the way in which he would soon fulfill God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem.’ Risen, Jesus would insist that this destiny was part of the ancient promise. He opened the disciples’ minds (Luke 24. 45) in explaining that ‘everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (Luke 24. 44). This theological appraisal of Jesus’s death also traces a path through Luke’s narrative of the Passover meal.
The Passover is both memory and longing. ‘Remember this day,’ Moses says in the earlier narrative (Exodus 13. 3); ‘it shall be to you […] as a memorial between your eyes […] for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13. 9). But the Passover also gives participants confidence to look to future paths under the same ‘strong hand’. At each Passover the last ritual looks to ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ with an eye even further forward towards the Messianic era. Taking one’s part in it, however, was always more than ritual. Each member under the covenant is to ‘look on himself as if he came forth out of Egypt’.1
Luke is no less particular. Here is a ‘remembrance’ of the Messiah who died (Luke 22. 19), but also intimations of a further kingdom where ‘you may eat and drink at my table’ (Luke 22. 30). This Supper itself is the culmination of a whole series of banquets in Luke’s narrative that display the bounty of the kingdom,2 and the future shape of the banquet within the kingdom is anticipated in the encounter at Emmaus with the Messiah breaking bread anew (Luke 24. 30–31) and revealing his identity.
Luke’s Greek symposion
In drawing up this farewell scene between the Messiah and his followers, Luke keeps in mind his Hellenistic audience. A departing leader and teacher has so much to tell that he must reserve for such an occasion his most urgent messages. Luke’s Greek readers would assume a gathering modelled after their own formal kind, with a meal all to itself followed by a period of inspiring conversation which they knew as the symposion.
We can see Luke attempting this arrangement. Immediately after the bread and wine he gathers together various apposite teachings of Jesus to form a farewell discourse (Luke 22. 24–38). Of interest to us is the first section of this discourse, the dispute among the disciples about ‘which of them was to be regarded as the greatest’ (Luke 22. 24–27). Here, we encounter the saying that is of interest to us, ‘Yet here am I among you like the waiter.’ It brings the dispute to a close but not before revealing the secret of the presence of Jesus among us when we really gather as his Church.
In dismissing the dispute about greatness as pointless and irrelevant, Jesus reminds disciples of the two spheres of existence: one sphere is the world, the other is discipleship. In spite of the disciples’ confusion as to which is which, the matter is simple, as Jesus makes brutally plain.
The world is the all-conquering domain of the Roman Empire. Within this domain, as today’s social scientists have reminded us, only three realities are recognized. These are power — also known as authority or force; then wealth, and honour. Jesus has these clearly in mind in depicting the ‘lordship’ of ‘kings’, and the ‘benefactions’ of ‘those in authority’ (Luke 22. 25). Among these terms ‘lordship’ is an absolute before which rights, property, and dignity dissolve. The so-called ‘authority’ of bureaucrats and imperial appointees differs only in degree from the vile abuse inherent in the exercise of ‘lordship’. And their benefactions — the building of marketplaces, the maintenance of aqueducts, the marbling of temples — were designed to elevate their own public profile and to promote their own advancement.
Plutarch tells us that when Sicilians protested at Pompey’s takeover of their cities he replied, ‘Stop quoting the laws to us; we carry swords.’3 Suetonius records that under Tiberius each day up to twenty men, women and children were executed and their bodies ‘dragged to the Tiber with hooks’; from the cliff top on Caprea ‘he used to watch his victims being thrown into the sea after prolonged and exquisite tortures’; when one prisoner begged for death, Tiberius replied, ‘No, we are not yet friends again.’4 Tacitus records of Christians after the fire of Rome that ‘dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.’5
Against a world in which ‘the greatest’ and ‘the leaders’ win their places in such ways, in discipleship status disappears. Where a list of equivalent expressions depicts the inner workings of the world — king / lordship / authority / benefaction (Luke 22. 25), within discipleship pairs of social opposites denote the contrast between this sphere and that sphere of the world: greater — younger, leader — waiter (Luke 22. 26). This part of Jesus’s teaching proscribes for discipleship the power that drives the world; at the same time the teaching exposes the domination, oppression and adulation that greatness requires to maintain itself in the sphere of the world.
Discipleship of the Messiah
The final confrontation of the two spheres is in terms of the world and the person of the Messiah himself. The great one of this world indulges his greatness by reclining at table, while the Messiah manifests the nature of his Messiahship by acting like a waiter (Luke 22. 27).
We must read this part of the Messiah’s teaching in the light of the dinner setting that Luke has previously put in place. As the formalities of the Messianic meal began (Luke 22. 19), Jesus broke and gave the disciples bread, but he called the bread ‘my body given for you’ (not, we notice, ‘that will be given for you’, as we hear in today’s Eucharistic liturgy). Next, he passed the cup, but he called the cup ‘my blood poured out for you’ (again, not ‘that will be poured for you’). This is at once bread and wine for food, and the new life it nurtures is by virtue of the body and blood of the looming death. As host of the ritual, Jesus nourishes and supports discipleship by giving — at the table — nothing less than his life. The discipleship must retain this ritual, as Luke makes plain at Emmaus (Luke 24. 31). Within this ritual, disciples encounter Jesus, and beyond the ritual the disciples’ way of life models itself on Jesus’s level of self-giving. A disciple gives all.
Thus, this part of the discourse displays the bounteous generosity discipleship requires. Nothing within discipleship operates on the principles of this world — its powers and prerogatives. At the same time, the discipleship requires leadership. In fact, Luke presents the meal as shared by Jesus and the Twelve, going on to report immediately the role of the Twelve within the kingdom (Luke 22. 28–30), and Luke will reinforce the reality of leadership in the first part of Acts.
From this first and dominant part of the discourse we are to conclude that the diakonia of Jesus is the total giving of himself to support the discipleship. Jesus has expressed this self-giving metaphorically as ‘waiting’ or ‘serving’ because the meal setting created by Luke demands this kind of terminology. Jesus does distribute the bread, and he does pass the cup. But his usage reflects further sensitivity here. He does not use the Greek noun for ‘waiter’ (diakonos) but the present participle of the verb (diakonōn). This was the preferred usage in Greek accounts of banquets. The imagery, however, is no mere symbol because the bread and wine are body ‘given’ and blood ‘poured out’. What the disciples are called to do ‘in remembrance’ of Jesus is not just the ritual of distributing bread and passing cups. In partaking of the ‘body given’ and the ‘blood poured out’ they become part of it and are to give themselves as fully. The demands of discipleship and of leadership within discipleship are total.
The extent to which Luke relies on the context of the meal to project his teaching is evident from a comparison of his handling of the dispute with the report of it at Mark 10. 42–45. Where Mark retains throughout a reference to political rulers and lordship, Luke switches to the dinner setting of the greater and the younger; where Mark continues with the socially ‘great’ and the ‘first’ of society, Luke stays in the meal setting with the reclining community leader and the waiter.
Mark’s teaching about Jesus issues in a theological formula about the saving power of Jesus’s death: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.’ And Mark sets the scene on the road going up to Jerusalem. Luke, on the other hand, has locked up the whole of Mark’s teaching in the ritual of bread and wine given to disciples as an ongoing source of the body and blood which gives life. Luke also makes sure, however, that the ritual assures disciples of Jesus’s abiding Messianic presence. The ritual says that if disciples remember Jesus, Jesus will never forget them.
What are deacons to take from Luke’s scene of Jesus’s sharing the Passover with his disciples? Although the scene is much loved by deacons, deacons do not enjoy an exclusive claim upon the passage or upon its clinching saying. The passage is a text for all the Church: for leaders, deacons, all disciples. The passage is more about what Jesus is amongst us — namely, a constant source of life — than about how leaders and disciples are to shape their conduct. Diakonia in this narrative remains a table metaphor for the deep-rooted openness to life and self-giving on the part of Jesus. That metaphor speaks forever in the Church as it meets ‘in remembrance’ of him ‘given’ and ‘poured out’. Disciples are to call down from the Jesus in their midst what they have the courage to open themselves to in his self-giving. For deacons this message may well be especially meaningful, but deacons do not take their name from here. They take that from another kind of diakonia. We see this clearly in what the later writer, Ignatius of Antioch, had to comment about the deacons among the Trallians: ‘they are not deacons (diakonoi) of food and drink but are officers (hypēretai) of the Church of God.’6
1 The Passover Haggadah, ed. by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken 1969), p. 49.
2 Luke 5. 29–32; 7. 36–50; 9. 12–17; 10. 38–42; 11. 37–44; 14. 1–24.
3 Plutarch, Pompey 10.
4 Suetonius, Tiberius 61–62.
5 Tacitus, The Annals, xv. 44.
6 Ignatius of Antioch, Trallians, 2. 3