Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”
Have you ever had one of those moments in leadership when you wonder whether what you’ve done has made any difference? I remember a conversation not long ago with someone from a group I had been leading for several years. I don’t recall the particulars of the conversation any longer, but I do remember my reaction after the conversation. I felt like yelling at my colleague in frustration, “Haven’t you learned anything in all of our time together?!” Thankfully, I had enough sense not to say that out loud…
In today’s world as it has been throughout human history, what often motivates people to leadership is a competition for recognition. Jesus turns that fundamental motivation for leadership on its head.
I imagine Jesus having one of those moments in today’s text. Just prior, Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper with his followers and announced that one of them would betray him. Not unexpectedly, his closest disciples were shocked. Shock quickly turned into an argument. Their initial response was quite understandable – which one of us is Jesus talking about? But, it seemed that question quickly devolved into an argument about who would be the greatest. How did that happen?
Early in my Christian journey, I was at a gathering of young adults in a retreat center for a week of learning what it meant to follow Jesus. At the end of that week, one of the speakers gave a startling statistic. Of the people in the room, 95% of the people would no longer be actively engaged in Christian discipleship five years later. I was never sure whether he said this just for its shock value or whether he actually had some basis for his statistic. But, I do remember thinking, “That’s not going to be me!”
I wonder if that’s how the followers of Jesus felt as they began the argument that led to this text. One of us may betray Jesus, but it’s not going to be me! As Matthew’s gospel records around this same time, Peter said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will!” (Matthew 26:33) It turns out, of course, that Peter was wrong. He did wind up denying Jesus, not once but three times. On the surface, Peter’s declaration was admirable. Still, underneath, Peter had turned his leadership role into a competition about who would be the best at following Jesus, who would be “the greatest”.
And, that leads us to Jesus’ response in today’s text. (One good thing to come out of that argument between the disciples is this record of Jesus’ seminal teaching about leadership.) Jesus is remarkable in what he says and the way in which he says it. First, he interjects some humor to break the tension of that heated moment. Did you catch Jesus’ use of irony? Those who exercise authority call themselves Benefactors. “Benefactor” is one of those euphemistic titles used by dictators about themselves in order to burnish their public image. The disciples probably thought with wry smiles, “Yeah, right!”
Jesus then goes on to make his main point: You are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.
Here, from two thousand years ago, is the core idea of what we have more recently come to call “servant leadership”. Max De Pree captures that vision in his well-known saying, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the leader is a servant.”
It’s worth pondering how radical Jesus’ teaching is. In today’s world as it has been throughout human history, what often motivates people to leadership is a competition for recognition. Jesus turns that fundamental motivation for leadership on its head. The greatest should become as the least, the youngest, the servant of all. What does Jesus mean by that? For that matter, what does Max De Pree mean by “the leader is a servant”?
Over the next few weeks, I will spend some time reflecting on this radical idea of a leader as servant. For now, I’d encourage you to reflect on today’s text from Luke and to think about the questions below.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
What motivates you as a leader? Why did you originally take on your leadership responsibility? What keeps you motivated in your work as a leader?
What does the phrase “servant leadership” mean to you?
Do you think of yourself as a “servant leader”? Why or why not?
Lord Jesus Christ, we are grateful for this record of your teaching on the subject of leadership. We are grateful too for your patience – not to mention your use of humor – with your first followers. Thank you that you understand who we are and what we need to be able to hear what you have to say to us.
We ask for insight as we reflect on this radical idea of the leader as servant. Help us to understand what you mean. Help us to go beyond cliché and mere ideas to wrestle with how this might change who we are and what we do as leaders.
We ask this for the sake of those we lead and for the world in which you have placed us.
Help us to live faithful to your name, Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: John 13:1-20