New Revised Standard Version
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “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?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The two children sat on the floor strategizing. There was something they both wanted, but even if they pooled all the money they had couldn’t afford it. The sister looked at her brother as they talked through their plan. There was no doubt in their minds that their parents loved them. They had been pretty good over the last several weeks. It was the perfect time ask.
Confidently, they went to their parents and said, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” The parents turned to each other with that “this ought to be good” look. “What is it you want us to do for you?” The sister spoke first, “buy us an iPad.” The brother chimed in, “we can use it to play games and watch videos. It will keep us busy so you can get stuff done.” His sister quickly added, “and we can look stuff up for school. We’ll share!”
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, probably had more than a few conspiratorial moments growing up. It was no surprise, then, that they teamed up to ask Jesus to do for them whatever they asked. The two likely talked together, weighed their options, and made their plan. They knew Jesus cared for them deeply. The brothers had done a decent job as disciples, maybe even exemplary in their minds. Plus, they were the first two men Jesus asked to follow him, so he had known them the longest. The two felt they had earned the places next to Jesus that they asked to have. Even when the other disciples got angry at them for making the request, James and John still felt they were deserving of the honor. After all, they had agreed to do what Jesus had asked of them – to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism (whatever that meant). The others hadn’t done that.
The other disciples saw them as teacher’s pets who were lobbying for preferential treatment and asking for what they didn’t deserve. James and John may have thought they were greater than the other ten, but the others knew that wasn’t true. All of them had walked with Jesus the past three years through thick and thin. They had all equally experienced the hardships of constantly being on the road. The ten believed they were just as deserving as James and John – maybe more so after this incident.
How does one determine who is deserving? Is there a specific set of criteria that must be met? A checklist to complete. A series of questions to answer? Who creates the parameters, decides who fits the bill, and of what they are deserving?
A different perspective might shed some light on these questions.
Consider a presidential debate. Theoretically, the purpose of the debate is for each candidate to make the case for why he or she should be elected, and the other candidate shouldn’t. Each one tries to convince voters that her or his interests and priorities, and that his or her plan for moving the country forward aligns with theirs. In short, each candidate is asking for voters to choose the one who meets their criteria the best – whatever that criteria is. The voters cast their ballots and wait. They wait to see who comes out on top – who earns the place of honor. Who earns the position of power.
Whoever wins will make sacrifices. Some they expected. Many they didn’t anticipate or had hoped to avoid. The new president will compromise on issues important to them – ones they had campaigned on and got elected on. He or she loses the freedom to live life on their own terms. Everything they do is scrutinized. They are put in dangerous situations. And…they will leave office with grayer hair than when they came in.
Life at the top is rarely what is expected when one gets there. Power changes people. The way one looks at the world and one’s place in it. Even when the goal is to do what is best for others, the outcome often becomes what is best for them. How else does one make the determination of what is best but to see oneself as in alignment with the people one leads.
Not every leader’s goal is to do what is best for those who are lower on the totem pole. A leader whose primary concern is “what’s in it for me?” or “how do I win” is not uncommon.
Whether the goal is to do the best for others or the best for oneself, a leader deals with power issues, win/lose decisions, hierarchies, and categorizing people. When one seeks to be a leader the question is often asked, “what are you willing to sacrifice for the cause?”
Jesus presents a different picture of leadership. One that is almost the polar opposite of what James and John are seeking. Servanthood not power.
Jesus’ definition of leadership is found in verses 43-44. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.
Be a servant. The image that comes to mind is of a person lower in status than others. The hired help – the butler, the house cleaner, the cook, the gardener – who does what ever the master requests. A servant won’t be anything more.
Jesus turns this idea on its head. Servanthood is a good thing. In fact, servanthood is the ideal, the one thing to strive for. The one thing worth sacrificing for.
Jesus demonstrated true servanthood to his disciples. The gospel of John recounts an event during the last time Jesus and his disciples were together. As they were sitting around the table, Jesus, their teacher, got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed their feet. The job of a servant. His instructions to them: follow my example. Be a servant. Wash the feet of others. Become great in God’s eyes be becoming the servant of all.
Be a servant. Put others first. Lead from the back not the front. Be willing to do what those others might consider to be in a “lower” position would do. Get to know someone else by walking in their shoes.
That’s the premise of the show, “Undercover Boss.” In each episode, the CEO of a company goes undercover disguised as a new hire who is learning the ropes. The boss works under the direction of and side-by-side with an employee with boots on the ground. All the while, the boss is getting to know the person, their dreams, and their needs. At the end of the show, the boss reveals their identity to each employee he or she worked with and does something to help that person realize their dream. The best part is that the boss has a new understanding of those who work for his company. The boss has had a glimpse of what it means to be a servant leader.
Even with a glimpse or two or three it is difficult to be a servant leader. People naturally gravitate towards non-servanthood. Not many can honestly say they are content with the way of a servant.
Being a servant, a servant leader, is an intentional choice. We will often fail at serving others. Yet that is our calling as followers of Christ. To see others with Jesus’ eyes and do whatever is needed to help the one we see to realize their dreams and God’s plans for them. To be servants, with Christ’s help.
One obstacle, an exceptionally large obstacle, is fear. The desire to tightly control is usually the result of fear. Fear and the quest for security.
We build walls, then higher walls, then add barbed wire on top to separate them from us. We want things to stay the same. Change generates fear because it threatens our security. Our comfort in who we are can become entrenched. All of which can lead to decision-making based on survival.
Jesus calls us to a different path. The path of a servant. The same one he walked. It is a difficult path that isn’t for the faint-hearted. But it is for the Jesus-hearted – those who commit to being his followers.
Now it may seem like a disconnect, an oxymoron of sorts that traditional leadership is the place of fear and the quest for security while servant leadership opens the door to true security. Security that comes from trusting Christ, letting Jesus guide the way. Living in the certainty that we are loved. Confident that we can love others as we serve.
In closing, I want to share a prayer for you to take with you. A prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
O divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
to be loved as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.