A good leader spends himself

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder Mark 10:35-45. The English Standard Version supplies the passage with the title “The request of James and John.” The Message translation titles it “The Highest Places of Honour.”

In verse 32, Mark tells us that Jesus headed purposefully towards Jerusalem, and that the twelve disciples he had hand-picked to be his closest associates and successors followed him. Fearfully.

Fearfully, because he kept telling them what the Jewish and Roman leaders would do to him. He told them the Jewish leaders would condemn him to death and hand him over to the Romans. He told them the Romans would mock him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him. And, after three days, he would rise.

So, there they were. Twelve men who’d left their homes, families, jobs.

Following a man who worked miracles, healed people, taught about God.

Following the man they thought was the Messiah whom their prophets had spoken about.

Following the man they thought was going to free them from the Roman oppressors.

But Jesus wasn’t telling them of a glorious victory. A victory like that portrayed in the prophetic books. A victory filled with the blood of their oppressors. Instead, he was telling them of a humiliating defeat.

They were perplexed. But they chose to continue following him. And to continue to believe that indeed, their side would win.

They even started talking about who would have the sweet, juicy positions of power in the soon-to-be kingdom of Jesus.

James and John, probably the first whom Jesus enrolled as his disciples, found a moment alone with him. They asked him for something.

They asked him to appoint them to the sweetest, juiciest, most powerful positions in his kingdom. Jesus refused their request.

He told them they didn’t know what they were asking for. He told them again that he was going to suffer. And added that they too would suffer.

Before long, the other ten disciples heard what James and John had done. With the one word “indignant,” Mark summarizes what followed.

That word “indignant” tells us the ten quarrelled with James and John. They shut them out. They stopped mixing with them. They felt the pair were too big for their boots.

Jesus saw that they responded as they did because they accepted the power structures of the society they lived in. They accepted it like fish accept water.

Jesus saw that they thought he would replace Caesar, the mightiest man in the empire. Caesar, who appointed Herod, Philip, Pilate, and the Chief Priests: all, rulers who had power to shape things and lacked nothing.

Jesus saw that the disciples thought he would make them the new rulers.

Jesus shattered their thoughts. He did it by criticizing those rulers. He said outright that they were oppressors. We read, from verse 42:

42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus’ point was that the rulers applied heavy taxes, made people poor, hungry, sick. They used the taxes to put up grand buildings, to display wealth, to enjoy great luxuries. They oppressed the people.

Jesus tells his disciples to reject such governments which enable rulers to act like lords over slaves. Jesus tells his disciples to support governments which accept as leaders only persons who are willing to be servants of the people. Leaders who give more than they receive.

Leaders should be treated with honour not because of the harm they can do to others, but because of the good they continuously do for others.

Jesus calls us to sacrificial action. Jesus models sacrificial action.

Jesus always referred to himself as “Son of Man.” It’s with that designation that he says he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That’s why I think the best title for the passage is “A good leader spends himself.”

All of our lives we’re subject to organizations which have power over us. Often, we wish people in those organizations made better use of their power. Some of us want to gain, use, even enjoy, power.

Mark recorded the request of James and John, the indignation it sparked in the others, and the response of Jesus, in order to embolden us to reject those who don’t seek or use power for the benefit of others.

We must make servant leadership the model and the standard by which we assess anyone who wields power, anyone who’s a leader.

If you’d like to learn more about power in organizations and about what it means to be a servant leader, I recommend Robert Greenleaf’s book “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.” I’ve included a link to the website of the Robert K Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.

Peace be with you.

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