Chapter 10: The Call to Servant Leadership (Matthew 20:20-28)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter 10: The Call to Servant Leadership (Matthew 20:20-28)

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:20-28

The human spirit has a built-in push to greatness. Like corks held under water, persons have an impulse to bob to the top. Like the young hero of Horatio Alger's story, we are bound to rise. In a New York Times Magazine article about an ambitious second-generation Taiwanese boy, this impulse was entitled "The Drive to Excel." But that drive is not limited to immigrants; it is universal. There is ample reminder of this in the narrative in chapter 20 of Matthew, in which the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to ask that her boys get top jobs.

She is not just another pushy parent, this woman who begs, "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." She is Every-mother. Or, if you prefer, Everyparent. Which parents do not dream of their children achieving greatness? Getting the best jobs? Rising to the top of the heap? Sitting with the powerful and the respected?

With some parents, surely, thwarted personal ambition is projected onto a son or daughter. Why else would a woman scrub floors so that her daughter could go to college? Or a father take on a second job so that his son might go to medical school? Why else do parents, when they gather after hours, spend so much time talking about their hopes for their children? These hopes are often voiced as narratives about success on the Little League field or in the sixth-grade spelling bee. But the bottom line is always: I hope my kid becomes someone special!

It is parochial to suppose that ambition is limited to parents of the middle class, in suburbia, and in the United States. Our biblical passage suggests that such ambition is universal. Here is a fisherman's wife of the first century, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, grasping at the possibility that her two sons -- without education, breeding, or financial backing -- might sit as princes in Messiah's kingdom.

In Matthew's narrative, Zebedee's wife is not the only illustration of the push to greatness. What of Jesus himself? Look at him! He has the mother kneeling at his feet, begging favors, like a poor widow asking for patronage from a ward boss. Like an impoverished noblewoman groveling before Louis XIV . Like a thief begging a Manchu emperor for pardon. This is the image of greatness that recurs in countless fairy tales, histories, case studies, and newspaper accounts: One person has such power to grant favors that others come and kowtow.

We have been taught to despise that kind of scene. Our democratic spirits cry out against it. We want Jesus to tell the woman to rise to her feet, to stop that degrading exercise. But he calmly asks her what it is she wants! He does not deny his kingship -- nor that his kingship merits the kind of reverence the woman offers him. We may wish he would take her by the hand, draw her to her feet, and ask her to discuss things as equals. But no; he says, "What do you want?" He accepts the role of oriental potentate, who has the duty to listen to his subjects and to grant requests, if they be reasonable and within his power.

What the woman asks for is audacious; she wants top jobs for her two boys. She wants James to sit on one side of the throne and John on the other. Presumably the persons who sat at the right and left hand of an oriental monarch shared in his power. When they addressed the public, they spoke for him; if he leaned to right or left and asked advice, it was within their power -- by whispering in his ear -- to give and take life, seize property, pardon capital offenses.

Who of us has not dreamed of such power? Why else do people wager millions on lotteries, if not to be rich and therefore powerful and able to satisfy any whim, to command the service and loyalty of others? Of what use is money if in some sense it does not -- so to speak -- put you at the king's right hand, where wishes can quickly be translated into deeds?

In our biblical narrative, the other ten disciples are indignant when they hear what is asked for the two brothers. And why not? There must have been rivalry among the Twelve. Who of them had not dreamed of being Jesus' right- or left-hand man? Why else would they be indignant at the power grab of the brothers? Where is there a closely knit group of workers in which there is not elbowing for the top jobs and the best seats? When in the whole history of the world have there been a dozen men, tied tightly in an enterprise, who were not concerned about rank?

If we have any doubt that human beings yearn to rule over others, Jesus dispels it with his reference to "'the Gentiles" (meaning almost everybody in the world). "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them" (Matt. 20:25). He reminds the disciples of what they already know: The push for the top jobs is what men and women of this world are mightily inclined toward. We do not need any more reminding that indeed there is built into human nature a push to greatness.

Our world, as mirrored in this narrative from Matthew, is one in which there is a constant shove toward the top of the heap. Sometimes it is the push of individuals for their own greatness and glory; sometimes it is the push of parents for the top jobs for their children. But that is how it is, folks, in the real world. It is our destiny to live in a world where there is fierce and constant competition for the best seats. That was true long before Charles Darwin described the survival of the fittest. It is as true of communist societies as of capitalist ones. It is as true of women as of men. One might prefer to live in a world where cooperation replaced competition, but we cannot invent the kind of world we would like to live in. We live in the world as it is.

This is not indisputable: Some folks insist we can have a world that is ruled by cooperation, from which competition for the top jobs and the best seats is eliminated. They promote noncompetitive games; they form co-ops; they make sharing the primary value in the nursery class. Some call our attention to the classroom behavior of Native American children, who are reluctant to recite if they show up their peers. But that is merely a bias against individualism; certainly the various Native American tribes were competitive enough when it came to protecting game lands from other tribes. And what fun are games in which you are not allowed to win? And don't coops end up in competition with one another? If it isn't always a dog-eat-dog world, certainly it is a world in which people hanker mightily to be top dog.

The Call to Service

If indeed it is our destiny to live in a world of competition, what is our call? It is a summons from Jesus to live in the Christian community as the servants of one another. "The essence of discipleship consists not in the enjoyment of privilege but in rendering service to others" (Kingsbury, p. 54). Jesus acknowledged that, among the Gentiles, it was common that the great should lord it over the rest and the rulers should exercise arbitrary authority. "It shall not be so among you," he said; "but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave." John Meier comments (p. 228), "Jesus first speaks of the servant, the person who freely puts himself at the disposition of others, and then radicalizes his statement with the image of the slave, the non-person who has no rights or existence of his own, who exists solely for others."

This is what in the New Testament we previously named a Great Reversal. There are other Great Reversals, but none more startling. Those who aspire to be influential in the church are to seek not the top jobs or the chief seats but the interest and advancement of others . Elsewhere Jesus enunciated the Law of Reversal: "So the last will be first, and the first last" (Matt. 20:16). In this study we have seen the practical results of that reversal: We are to save our lives by losing them; we are to love our enemies; we are to forgive our debtors. And now we have one more instance of it: We are to seek greatness by being servants.

Several of our commentators agree that it is in the church that this servant role is to be exercised. "[This section] concludes the entire period in which the disciples are to learn what it means to live in the community of Jesus. Matthew 18 described how the community could live as a free congregation of brothers without having any members placed in positions of superiority and control, held together only by brotherly service, imposed upon all" (Schweizer, p. 398). "This world cannot supply the model for leadership in the church. Church leadership is modeled on the paradox of the cross, the inversion of all values and ambitions.... Church leaders who derive their tools and signs of power from this world betray the gospel of Jesus" (Meier, pp. 228-229).

A word of caution: The call is to servanthood, not to servility. A common misunderstanding of Jesus' teachings is that Christians are to be servile -- never to aspire to greatness, always to think poorly of themselves. That is a common but complete misunderstanding of what Jesus asked of us. Jesus did not say, Whoever among you would be great, let them be servile. That would have been relatively easy for us to manage. Many of us are experts at playing Poor Little Me, who can't do anything good or right -- certainly not anything noteworthy. Jesus didn't ask for that. He asked for something much more difficult: that we put the interests of others ahead of ourselves.

We must be careful not to read into the term "servant" purely sociological meaning. We think of Rose and Mr. Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs, of Uncle Tom, of waiters, butlers, houseboys, Filipino gardeners -- all the servant images of our society -- and we suppose that is what Jesus calls us to be, a sort of religious Peace Corps, in which we run around looking for people to do good to, whether or not they want good done to them! Not so. What Jesus calls us to is the style and disposition of a servant, one whose chief concern is the interests of others. The servile person is concerned about himself or herself, to win the favor of others by being obsequious or humble; the servant is concerned about the health and welfare and well-being of others. If you would be great, Jesus told his disciples, aspire to serve your fellow disciples. If you and I aspire to greatness, we will find true greatness by seeking first to be the servants of others.

Jesus clearly put the emphasis on seeking the welfare of others rather than upon the lowly social status of the slave. For after saying, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant," he added the reason for such a Great Reversal: "Even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." It is the self-sacrificing of Christ on behalf of others that is our model, example, impetus, motivation for servanthood. This model constantly reminds us that a true servant is one who seeks the welfare of others, not one who despises social rank and prefers being a gardener to a corporate executive or who enjoys knuckling his forehead and saying Yes, sir! or Yes, ma'am! There is in our current society a reluctance on the part of some to

be part of a system in which a few are considered of superior rank. So they opt out entirely from the large institutions of society and go off and live in classless societies of their own making. This is not what Jesus intended. He intended what Paul terms looking "not only to [your] own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4).

The Servant Image

There is a host of images in scripture that support this understanding of the true servant. Prominent among these is the cluster of images of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, chapters 40-55, in which the Servant of God is pictured not as one who is self-effacing but as one who brings justice and righteousness to earth through suffering.

He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not. -Isaiah 53:3

Such an image calls to mind such modern servants of humanity as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Sister Teresa, Kagawa, Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier. The Servant in Isaiah is one who affects the course of history, who is instrumental in bringing God's will to pass in human affairs.

The servant image was never more clear than in the hymn to Christ in Philippians, where it is said of Jesus that he, "though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:6-7). It is Jesus Christ in his incarnation and sacrificial death who is he final model and motivation for servanthood.

Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf spent most of his working life in management training for AT&T. In his book Servant Leadership, he describes what our society most needs. It is what Greenleaf calls the servant leader. This is a person who is chosen to guide a great institution -- a corporation, a church, a university -- because he or she has first displayed a capacity for and a disposition toward being a servant. Greenleaf does not find the concepts servant and leader at odds with one another. As a matter of fact, he insists that "the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness." Greenleaf goes on to say that he sees a social movement developing in which only servant leaders will be followed. More and more, society mistrusts leaders whose chief interests are their own agendas and authority; more and more, people are looking for leaders whose first interest is the good of others.

That is an important point in Greenleaf's understanding of the servant leader. His service to others must past this difficult test: "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

In the view of the author of Matthew, Jesus certainly would have passed such a test: "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus showed his servant leadership in giving his life to set people free. The Gentiles of Jesus' day would have scorned a book called Servant Leadership; for, as Jesus told the disciples, "The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them." In the Gentile world, which knows not Christ, servant and leader are contradictory terms. We who know the servant Sovereign know differently.

One important thing remains to be said about servant leadership. This is a kind of greatness no one chooses. Rather, one is chosen for such service. When the mother of James and John asks Jesus for the right and left seats in his kingdom, he gives two reasons why they cannot have them. First of all, he questions whether or not they are able to drink the cup that he will drink. The reference is clearly to his impending suffering and death. The route to the kind of greatness that the mother wants for her sons leads through suffering and death. Certainly she has not reckoned with that! But also, Jesus says, the seats at his right and left hand are not his to grant; they are for those for whom they have been prepared by the Father in heaven. Not only is greatness to be achieved by being a servant; not only does it lead through suffering and death -- ask Gandhi, King, Lincoln, Raoul Wallenberg -- but it is granted to those for whom God has prepared it. Men and women are chosen for greatness; they do not choose to be great. They choose to be servants, following the example of Christ; the Father in heaven chooses them for greatness.

This is one of the insights of Bearing the Cross, David Garrow's portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book shows a man upon whom the prophetic mantle fell against his wishes. King just happened to be on the scene in Montgomery, Alabama, when the bus boycott began -- a young preacher newly come to town. He did not choose leadership; it sought him out and chose him. There is a saying in the civil rights movement: "If Rosa Parks had not sat down, Martin King would not have stood up." Events conspired to make King the leader of a movement. Robert Greenleaf, in describing the servant leader, has his order straight: One chooses to be a servant of the public; one is then chosen to be a leader.

Our call, then, is to servanthood: to have, as Paul puts it, "this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5); to seek the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ and of our neighbor; to be disposed to serve rather than to be served. If honor and respect come of all that or through all that, one is not to shun them or pretend to be surprised or play the no-account. But one does not choose that path in order to be great.

The world desperately needs servant leaders, those whom great institutions can trust to lead, because they are first and foremost committed to serving. None of us dare to aspire to be a Martin Luther, a Martin Luther King, Jr., an Abraham, an Abraham Lincoln, or a Joan of Arc. But we may -- and must -- aspire to be servants of one another, to seek the common rather than our own private good. This we can do; it is well within our capabilities. And if others should see our service and summon us to lead them -- first within the church, then possibly in the university, in Congress, or in the corporation -- we may trust the call of Christ and follow that path to greatness.

When I was growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, I saw the idea of the servant leader lived out. Charles Evans was an elder in our congregation and the superintendent of our Sunday school. He also happened to be the managing director of a steel mill, where I worked for two summers. He was a quiet, modest man who had been chosen during World War I to rescue an ailing company. When that summons came, he was on the faculty of a boys' school as an instructor in chemistry. But he left the classroom and took over the company and put it on its feet. He was by all odds the best loved and most respected worker in that plant.

I have been privileged to know several persons like Charles Evans -- decent, dutiful, modest people, who carry heavy responsibilities with great cheerfulness and compassion. They made public service their first order of priority. They did not aspire to greatness. Greatness found them out. So will it find out any who allow the service of others to become their ruling passion.