Servant Leadership

TEXT: Mark 10:32-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward … and said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10:35-37)

Jesus and his party are on the road to Jerusalem. For Jesus, it is also the road to his destiny—and he knows it. Taking his disciples aside, he says to them:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32-34)

For the third time in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his own death. And once again, the disciples give a wrong-headed response to Jesus’ words about his passion. It’s as if they heard only the beginning and ending of what he said. In their minds, they pasted together the terms “Jerusalem” and “Son of Man,” and pictured a risen, powerful, autocratic Messiah, resembling King David. They completely missed all the talk of condemnation, rejection, mocking, spitting, flogging and execution.

So James and John approach Jesus with their foolish and self-serving question. First, they try to trick Jesus by saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Sounds incredibly selfish, doesn’t it? Maybe even childish. But, look: let’s be honest, here. I can identify with James and John. Can’t you?

Jesus asks them: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

And they reply: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

As I think about that, I realize that, yes—I want to bask in glory one day, too. We’ll get to the next life and everyone will be using their heavenly binoculars to look at me from miles away, and they’ll say, “Wow! There’s Grottenberg! Look at that! That lay minister is sitting at the right hand of God!

“I had no idea. I should have sucked up to Gary when I had the chance. Now look at me. … even though I was a fully ordained minister … and wore all those priestly garments … and had everybody call me “Reverend” … NOW, I’m cleaning toilets in heaven … for the rest of eternity!”

That’s my dream.

If I’m being honest, I want Jesus to give me whatever I ask for. And why not? We’re talking about Jesus, after all! Why not ask?

So the brothers ask. James and John put their cards on the table, demanding preferred seating in the messianic kingdom. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 

They sound like children fighting over the “shotgun” position in the car, or yelling “dibs” to claim their favourite spot. Their question reveals their lack of understanding of true leadership. They are looking for positions of power and prestige. They think leadership comes from where you sit rather than how you serve. Jesus gives them a sharp rebuke when he says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Immediately they reply, saying: “We are able.” Eagerly they claim the cup and the baptism—but they have no understanding of the personal cost underpinning these two images.

Jesus then agrees that his disciples will become participants in the tragic events soon to come. But he refuses to discuss further any future heavenly seating arrangements. He reminds them that God alone holds the authority to make such assignments.

James and John’s request angers the other disciples. Perhaps they are upset that that the two have somehow beaten them to the punch and gained some advantage over them. So Jesus calls them all together to give them yet another lecture on real leadership in the Kingdom of God. He says:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42b-45)

The traditional image of leadership (which Jesus labeled the style of the Gentiles) is that of an autocratic person controlling and manipulating the actions of others.

This approach has been practiced throughout the world, in every culture. Sometimes both followers and leaders prefer this kind of leadership. It excuses followers from thinking for themselves, and relieves them of any responsibility for their own actions. It also gives leaders virtually unlimited power. However, Jesus declared that this type of leadership was not to be exercised within the church.

Sadly, for most of its existence, the church has failed to understand Jesus’ teaching about servant leadership.  Looking at Christian history, we see that the church has generally imitated the kind of abusive leadership common in the secular world. While despots ruled with terror, torture and slaughter, leaders in the church also demanded absolute authority, ruled with iron fists, and smashed any dissent. The church has had—and I’m afraid, still has—more than its share of power-hungry bullies who love to throw their weight around.

Yet Jesus declares that it is only through service that one may become great. By his example and by his direct teaching, Jesus showed the way to real leadership for us today. The authority of the Christian leader is not power, but love; not force, but example; not coercion, but reasoned persuasion.

This message of servant leadership is one that most Christians today have failed to hear. We are more like James and John than we are like Jesus. Our lack of understanding of servant leadership is a big problem, and I believe that—at least in part—it stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of leadership in the Body of Christ.

In the church, leaders are supposed to be servants—willing servants. We don’t need people who will put on airs of prestige and power, pretending to be better than they are. No. All of us have made our mistakes, and all of us have our weaknesses. As someone has said, the church is a hospital for sinners. But the church needs each of us sinners to be willing to serve in the name of our Lord.

Henri Nouwen had a wonderful image in his book The Wounded Healer. The healer in his story was not a person in perfect health, but one of the afflicted. The difference was that the healer would bind up his own wounds long enough to minister to others. That’s all any of us can do in the church—because we are all wounded healers.

Yes, some of us are old, and some of us are tired. None of us have enough money, or enough time, or enough energy. None of us are good enough, or smart enough. None of us are ready. It doesn’t matter. God calls us anyway. God calls each one of us—not to do everything, but to do something.

When we do work without complaint, when we do serve willingly, and when we do care about the needs of others, then we do not need to assume guilt for what we have not done. And we can know that God will take care of things, as he did in Jesus 2,000 years ago—and as he still does today, through the work of his Spirit.

Jesus calls us to be servants of one other, to care for each other and for the world God made, and he promises to us grace sufficient for the task—if we are but willing to follow where he has led the way.

Please—let’s be willing.


One Reply to “Servant Leadership”

  1. Amen and amen. Serving from our place of weakness and woundedness, for the sake of the other. This was the example of Jesus and is meant to be the ethos of the church…

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