In today’s Gospel reading, St. Mark tells us that Jesus was on His way up to Jerusalem when He was telling them things that “astonished” them and “frightened” His other followers. He clearly and specifically revealed to them what was going to happen in the coming days and weeks. “We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)
But then, remarkably, as if they hadn’t heard a word He had just spoken about everything that He would be undergoing, James and John came to Him quietly asking not about what He might need, but wanting something for themselves! They asked Him to “write them a blank check!” They asked Him to grant anything they wanted, and what they wanted was the privilege of sitting in honor and power with Him in His glory.
Jesus in turn asked them if they were able to “drink the cup the cup of suffering I drink or be baptized with the baptism of suffering I am baptized with?” They replied that they could, but they really didn’t know what they were asking nor did they know what sort of suffering they would eventually undergo for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel. (Tradition tells us that John was eventually exiled to the island of Patmos for the rest of his life and James was beheaded because of his proclamation of the Gospel.)
The other disciples became aware of James and John’s request and a quarrel broke out among them about who was the greatest; who deserved the positions of greatest honor. Jesus finally “stepped in” to settle the dispute by explaining that “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.” Mark 10:43-44)
We cannot imagine that in the face of His impending suffering and death the disciples only cared about which of them might be considered “first, greatest or best.” Yet, today, even though we know the consequences and benefits of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, we still live as if we want to be first, best and greatest. What we do, and what we fail to do for others, demonstrates the sin of putting ourselves first. This sin of “Me first” creeps into our marriages, our relationships, and into our schools and workplaces, and even into our parishes. Jesus died to forgive and remit our sin, and He gives Himself as the perfect example and model of servant leadership. He cared for the “last and the least.” He loved and healed those who were physically, mentally, and emotionally broken. He, ultimately, died for the sins of the whole world, yours and mine, even our sins of selfishness, pride and the craving to be “first, best and greatest.”
Forgiven in Christ, we can find true greatness, joy, peace, contentment and fulfillment by emulating and being “The Greatest of all Servants.” And that is what today’s Gospel is all about, being servants. Our greatness, if that is what we truly seek in this life, to be remembered for being great, lies not in wealth or position but in how much of a servant we have been to others.
In the words He speaks, Jesus described what true spiritual leadership is. Jesus boils all of it down to two words: selfless service. The way to lead people spiritually is not by manipulation or by a special technique or through intimidation. On the contrary, genuine spiritual leadership takes place when you give of yourself sacrificially in service to others.
Spiritual leadership is the heart of my message this morning not only to you, my dear people, but to the whole Church. The Universal Church finds itself in a great crisis. Some of the local Particular Churches find themselves mired deeper in the crisis than others, but all of us, to some degree, find ourselves in the midst of it. The crisis of which I speak is the deficit of servant leaders in the Church. A great leader leads by becoming a servant of all. To understand this, let us refer back to our Gospel reading of today.
The Passover is near, and Jesus is soon to die. The apostles and disciples knew that His end was near. Ever since they took a retreat up north in Caesarea Philippi, they knew that Jesus’ days were numbered. They knew He was going to suffer many things and eventually be killed. His disciples knew that all this would take place in Jerusalem, that city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her.” (Matthew 23:37). And so, they are heading up to Jerusalem.
As He’s walking with His disciples, Jesus isn’t being dragged into the city, as if he really didn’t want to get to the city. He wasn’t a little child, screaming and kicking in protest of having to go to the dentist’s office. On the contrary, Jesus was eager and willing to enter the city. If you read the text carefully, you will find that if anything, Jesus was dragging His disciples into the city. “Jesus was walking ahead of them.” (Mark 10:32). Our Lord wasn’t dragging His feet or taking His time. He knew full well what was going to happen to Him when He got to Jerusalem, yet He walked purposefully and with eagerness to accomplish His work in Jerusalem. After all, it was for this that He was born. When you think about this, you are astonished. Jesus was the One who was on His way to execution, while His disciples were merely going along to watch. But, it was Jesus who led the way, while His disciples were hesitant, and lagged behind.
A true servant leader is one who suffers and gives until it hurts. That does not mean that everyone who strives to be a servant leader is a masochist; someone who enjoys pain and suffering. They don’t go out and look for it, but they will accept it and endure it when it presents itself because they know that suffering reveals the truth and exposes a person’s true heart. Suffering lifts the veil that blocks our sight and opens our eyes to divine realities. Suffering helps us know ourselves better and perfects us in the virtues.
St. Paul’s own description of his ministry show how filled it was with suffering. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands. When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate. We have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.” There are many more examples in the New Testament detailing Paul’s suffering. But the point is, Paul knew the suffering that took place for those in positions of spiritual leadership.
Today, it is no different. Admittedly, however, there are many spiritual leaders who face little by the way of suffering. I would put most American church leaders in this category. For the most part, the suffering of American church leaders comes usually from within the Church. Sometimes the suffering comes in the form of name-calling when a disagreement arises as a result of doctrinal differences. At other times, the suffering comes as disgruntled Church members let their disappointments be known. And sometimes the suffering comes when the evil deeds of errant bishops and priests come to light; although I would call this suffering justice. But there are other Church leaders who face much in the way of suffering. I would put the faithful leaders in foreign lands which are hostile to the Gospel in this category. In some countries, bishops, priests and religious are intimidated and kidnapped. In the former Soviet Union, countless bishops, priests, monks and nuns were imprisoned and murdered. Even today, China is still hostile to the Church and other ecclesial and faith communities.
As terrible as the sufferings of these leaders was and is, the suffering of Jesus went beyond this. The willingness of Jesus to suffer ought to be true of every leader in the Church. Servant leadership is willing to give all for Christ. Servant leadership is willing to sacrifice all for the Church. Servant leadership doesn’t seek for status, power or position. Consider the negative example of James and John. They were seeking for their own status and exaltation. They wanted a position of prominence, and they wanted it by being appointed into that position. How bold and arrogant both James and John were to demand of the Lord that He do whatever they asked of Him.
The timing of this discussion could not have been worse. Jesus had just spoken with all of His disciples about His upcoming death, and it was not going to be a pleasant death. He would be mocked, he would be spit on. He would be scourged. He would be crucified, with nails driven through His hands and feet. It’s as if James and John did not even hear what the Lord was saying to them. Their timing was all wrong. Asking for the opportunity to sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus in His glory at this time, would be like asking your boss for a raise, just after he made a company-wide announcement that they were declaring bankruptcy. Or, it would be like asking for extra vacation time, just after being fired from your job. Or, it would like having your best friend tell you that he’s dying of cancer and only has six months to live and then you ask, “Can I have your CD collection?” It was plain bad timing.
The question asked by James and John demonstrates that they were in it totally for themselves. They were seeking status and reputation and power for themselves. You can see how they were seeking to manipulate the situation to their benefit by first saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” But Jesus was no fool. He knew what they were up to. He could sense their manipulation. He sensed it often in the Scribes and Pharisees who often questioned Him. He sensed it also in His disciples. I don’t think that it takes any special revelation from God to know what was on the mind of these disciples. Knowing what they were up to, and without promising them anything, Jesus simply asked, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
How often do we try to manipulate the Lord? How often do we act the way James and John acted? Are we more concerned with power, position and status than we are about serving Christ, His Church and each other? When we ask for power, things, position, wealth, etc., God responds by telling us, “you do not know what you are asking. Are you able to handle these things and the suffering and unhappiness that comes along with them? Being on the top doesn’t guarantee you happiness and that you have made it. Life in the Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. On the contrary, God’s Kingdom, the way up is down. The way up is by rolling up your sleeves and getting down and dirty. It means washing the dust and dirt from the feet of your brothers and sisters. Christ Himself showed us the perfect example of servant leadership when He knelt down and washed the feet of His disciples on the night before He died.
When you are invited by someone to a banquet, you do not sit in a place of prominence or honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by the one who is giving the banquet, and he who invited you will then come and say to you, “give your seat to this person,” and then in disgrace and embarrassment you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and sit at an obscure table, so that the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, “Friend, come to this better table”; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For all those who exult themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
This is the way that those in positions of spiritual leadership ought to seek any status that they desire not by seeking some sort of appointment into a position of prominence, but rather by seeking the work. Then, as people identify in them a purposeful spirit and a willing heart for the work, their status will come in due time and in appropriate ways. I believe that this is what St. Paul was getting at in his First letter to Timothy, when he spoke about men who aspire to the office of bishop. He says that such an individual desires a noble work. He places the emphasis on the work and not the office.
Shepherding and serving others are fine works to desire. Bishops and priests should be shepherding people long before they obtain their office. So I say to all of you who aspire to have a position of spiritual leadership within the local Church someday: do the work today. Start now! Do it with all your heart. Get to know people. Serve them. Love them. Share your life and your love with them. And then, trust the Lord to place you in the position of leadership that is right for you. Do not seek it through manipulation or some kind of political appointment to the office. Seek it through service. Obtain it through service. This is the path to servant leadership.
Servant leadership wants to serve. A real servant leader will feel it in his or her heart. Servant leadership cannot be forced or faked. Servant leadership is borne out of love and is open to the guiding g influence of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit who inspires one to service and places the desire to serve in a person’s heart. Servant leadership requires a humble spirit; humility and service go hand-in-hand.
Too often we think that the way to prominence and position is to be at the front of the line. We think that the best way to be first is to assert ourselves to be first. But this is simply the way of the world. There is a definite way that the world seeks to lead. And there is a way that God wants for us to lead. The world leads by “looking out for number 1.” If somebody doesn’t do exactly as you say, you can simply raise your voice and show your anger in an effort to intimidate the person to do as you say. That’s called bullying and it has become very prevalent in our society today. In the workplace, bosses often use their authority to get their employees to do what they want. Politicians and government officials frequently abuse their authority and power to get what they want. Sadly today, many people in the world are boastful and arrogant and use whatever is in their power to get their own way, and thereby move up the ranks in power. That is how many people in power came to be where they are: by intimidation, bullying and manipulation. But Jesus says the opposite. “But it is not this way among you.” The manner of conduct of God’s people needs to be different.
Rather than leveraging authority, God’s leaders are to be servants. God’s people are to be slaves of all. The greatest spiritual leaders will be the greatest of servants. The greatest churchmen will be the most humble slaves of all. “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all.” Notice there is no hint here of any attempt on the part of Jesus to discourage any away from seeking spiritual greatness. The exhortation, however, has to do with the manner in which greatness is sought. Greatness is sought through sacrificial, selfless service.
This is God’s way. The way up is down. Effective spiritual leaders are those who demonstrate their heart for people by loving them and serving them. That is how you influence people and bring them to Christ and the Church. I know of my own failures in this area. There have been times in my priesthood and episcopate when I have not loved enough and served people as I ought to do because I tried to think of myself first, rather than putting my trust in God that He would provide all that I need. My duty is clear: “I have come to serve, not to be served.”
Jesus did not merely tell His disciples what they should do. Rather, He demonstrated His teaching by example. The King of the universe did not come among us to enjoy the pleasures of this life, tanning on the beaches of Hawaii, living a life luxury like those depicted on the Real Housewives of Atlanta or Million Dollar Listing. When Jesus came to earth, he came as a servant. He was a servant in His life. He was a servant in His death. He didn’t tell us, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Rather, He said, “do as I do. Follow My example.”
All that Jesus did on earth was focused upon helping others. He healed the sick. He cast out demos. He made the blind to see. He made the lame to walk. He made the deaf to hear. Nobody ever left the presence of Jesus that wasn’t cured. He healed “all diseases and all sicknesses among the people.” (Matthew 4:23). On the night that Jesus was betrayed, He gave a great example to His disciples of His life as a servant. In the upper room, with His disciples all around Him, Jesus, “got up from supper and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” (John 13:4-5) This was the lowest task that Jesus could have ever doe that day. Washing someone’s feet was reserved only for the slaves of the house. But Jesus wanted to serve His disciples in this way, setting an example of what we should do for one another.
Jesus explained to His disciples what He did, saying, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet; for I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
The admonition comes straight to us, “you are blessed if you do them.” Whether it is a leader in the Church or whether it is a faithful father or mother, or husband or wife, or a little girl or little boy who loves Christ, we are all called to be servants of one another. But, this especially applies to leaders in the Church. Bishops, priests, and deacons most especially must pay great heed to this admonition for, Christ Himself will be severe with those who have been consecrated and ordained to service in His name and who have failed in their duty and obligation to serve God’s people completely.
Let us pray, my dear children, that we will all answer the call to serve one another and follow Christ’s example of selfless and unselfish love.