Matthew 20:20-28 – Leadership as Service to Others

Statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, in Pittsburgh, Texas. Photo by Carol Highsmith

The mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “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.” (New International Version)

Jesus and his disciples were not on the same page. That’s because they each had differing agendas.

Jesus was clear with the disciples about how things were going to shake out with him: torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead. It seems the disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads.

It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It’s more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like.

Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing, while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

Let’s be clear about what that true power really is: grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace.

Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way).

No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for self-serving authority.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any sort of leadership position is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world.

If Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into the Scriptures, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, that King David trafficked in grace.

David, at the pinnacle of power, looked over the kingdom to see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not:

  • Reliance on making and calling-in favors
  • Arrogant and overinflated egos
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Hatred and suspicion of others
  • Judgment and condemnation
  • An insistence on recognition
  • Compulsive manipulation and control over everything and everyone
  • Unilateral decision-making
  • Shaming of others
  • Hoarding resources
  • Coups and in-fighting
  • A demand of rights

We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ.

In contrast to this, grace exists. It is the deep magic which resides within. Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant:

Attending to the needs of all persons, especially the least, the last, and the lost

  • Freely consulting and collaborating with others
  • Focusing on responsibility
  • Loving discipline
  • Embracing accountability
  • Pursuing truth and integrity
  • Sharing power and resources
  • Encouraging feedback
  • Giving generously
  • Looking for ways to show mercy

This old world desperately needs leaders with a dutiful sense of public service which is compassionate and kind. Wielding authority is not about a show of strength; it is in the understanding that when I am weak, then I am strong.

Yes, this approach to leadership may bring some short-term suffering. Grace, however, results in longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God, and for the blessing of the world. Amen.

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