Sermon November 10th: Radical Servanthood

by Wes Rohrer

And James and John, the son of Zebedee, came up to Him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” And He said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, ”Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized ?… and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:35-39, 44)

In order to better understand the implications of this passage for us, it is helpful to place it in the context of the narrative of the rich young man and Jesus’ foretelling his passion and death to his disciples for the 3rd time in the preceding verses of Mark 10. Apparently in sincerity and with good intentions the rich young man – who seemed to have everything going for him in worldly terms – asked Jesus to give him the final and best treasure, the secret of internal life.  Jesus responded with a condensed version of the 10 Commandments: “You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery … etc.  The young man (perhaps with a hint of self-satisfaction) responded that he had been observant of the law all his young life. We might finish his unstated thought:  “So what else could be asked of me, really! I have always played by the rules and have nothing to be ashamed of…” Jesus (lovingly but perhaps wistfully anticipating the outcome)  informed the young man of the missing piece, the final task before claiming the ultimate reward – “give away all you have to the poor and follow me…”  The young man said no more but turned away, disheartened, perhaps astonished, that such an unreasonable barrier was erected between him and what he so clearly deserved.  I have always found this character to be a sympathetic figure – and suspect that Mark intended him to be. For who among us would not be stopped in our tracks by such a request: to literally give away all our material wealth, great or small, and follow Jesus without even knowing the length of the journey, a map of the terrain or the ultimate destination.  Who would have such faith? Yet the instruction was clear, direct and not to be ignored…

Soon thereafter in Mark 10: 32-34 on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus tells his disciples for the third time that he, the Son of Man would be delivered over to the authorities, condemned to death, would be mocked, tortured, and suffer brutally before dying a humiliating death by a punishment reserved for the worst offenders, thieves and murderers. This begs the question of what the disciples were thinking as they heard this prophecy again on route to the fulfillment of it.  One can only imagine that some might have dismissed Jesus’ warning as yet another parable most of which they found so puzzling.  Did he intend this to mean literal suffering and death, and if so would they share the same fate? Perhaps the Son of Man was a mysterious reference to someone other than their leader, Jesus.  Some might have wanted Him to change his travel plans, to return to Galilee or territory where He and they could travel in safety as unknown and nonthreatening wanderers.

We can only speculate how James and John framed Jesus’s warning but their subsequent reaction is telling. Instead of asking Jesus what they might do to support Him given this disturbing scenario or requesting further counsel or instructions, they turned the focus on themselves asking Jesus to grant them a favor, quite a great favor in fact. Might they place reservations for favored seats on either side of Jesus once the Christ claimed His supremacy and ascended to His throne? The arrogance of this request is daunting but is most telling as evidence that the disciples collectively were missing the point. They just didn’t understand the Gospel message, what Jesus expected of them as followers, the demands of discipleship, the nature of His Messiahship and the Kingdom of God.  Jesus provided the clues for deeper understanding of the conditions for redemption, salvation for rebirth; yet throughout the journey to the Cross they remained clueless.  Jesus’ response though almost certainly rooted in love may have carried a tone of exasperation – certainly this would be justified. Not only were the senior members of His disciples focused on political gamesmanship and favoritism, they clearly were missing the point of his mission and the implications for them as followers. Their knee-jerk response of compliance to Jesus’ challenge of whether they could drink from the same cup and experience the same baptism reinforces a conviction that they deeply misunderstood or choose to deny the implications of His broader message and specific prophecy of the anguish that lay ahead. The cup held the wine of vinegar offered to Christ on the cross in His agony while the baptism was that of blood, the rite of passage into His glory. And we know many of the disciples eventually died as martyrs to the faith. But at this point they could not see beyond their own interests and fears. In this they were all too human, they were us in their faithlessness, self-centeredness and limited capacity of discernment. Would any of us have done any better? Would we have taken up the challenge to share in His Jesus’ suffering or instead have become absorbed in bickering about who deserves the best seats around the throne?  Are we prepared in fact to endure suffering for our faith and in allegiance to a leader whose behavior in the Gospel accounts seems sometimes too passive, unimpressive (in terms of a show of might) and too often puzzling? In all candor we should not be too hard on the disciples in their confusion, reluctance and lack of steadfastness, for are we confident that we would have done much better?

After His challenge to the presumptuous disciples, Jesus proceeds to offer a lesson on leadership that serves both as response to James and John’s petition, as further explanation of his own Messiahship and as a template and challenge for the disciples to take up God’s mission once He has left them physically: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”  Jesus’ message must have been perplexing to the disciples as it contained a radical counter-cultural message. Not only does it reverse first and last, but Jesus challenges the very logic of hierarchy at least in secular terms. Leadership during the Roman era meant power and its display, the subjugation and willing compliance of the weak in order to receive protection from the powerful.  Freedom was reduced to the ability to struggle to survive within rigid political and cultural constraints enforced by the Jewish leadership as proxies for the Roman imperial power. So the ordering of first and least was clear to both those at the top and bottom – an ordering that was reinforced whenever someone dared to challenge the power structure as Jesus did so dramatically.

The disciples must have wondered even if not voiced the question:  “So what is required of me to be a servant to others?” And they likely recoiled from the very notion that they would be subjected to slavery, to renounce the limited freedom they did enjoy.

This passage resonated with me especially as I have been a student of leadership, theory and practice, much of my career.  It can be argued that more has been written about leadership than any other aspect of organization and management. Thousands of serious articles have been published about leadership traits, styles, models and the variables affecting leadership. Manuals for effective leadership appear prominently in the airport news kiosks: The One-Minute Guide to Leadership, 7 Principles of Effective Leadership, Dare to Be A Great Leader, Hot Yoga and the Inner Leader.  Indeed an approach to Servant Leadership has become recognized as a valid model of leadership among those who study organization behavior, based on the work of Greenleaf.  This scholar based his model on his reading of Herman Hesse’s novel Journey to the East in which a servant who performs menial tasks and provides entertainment for a group of travelers serves as the key figure. When he becomes separated from the group not to return, the group becomes dysfunctional and eventually abandon their journey. Without recognizing it the servant had performed as the informal leader without whose service and spirit the group could not sustain its mission and coherence. Greenleaf’s core theme is that not only must the effective leader focus on serving the needs of his followers in order for the team to be effective,  she must also look and act beyond the limits of the group and exercise a social responsibility of justice, to address the inequities that persist locally and globally. This recognizes that leadership cannot fully be understood or exercised in a vacuum but only in a community context in which superordinate values trump narrow interests of the leader and even of the organization he serves.

So what links this model of Servant Leadership with Mark’s narrative and what are the implications for us as members of the Body of Christ, as followers of Him and for some among us, leaders of others?

If God the Father demanded (and offered) the sacrifice of His Son what less would be required of his followers? If we apply this to ourselves as flawed followers in the context of 21st Century Western society, are the implications and expectations any different?  We hear encouragement from the pulpit and devotional tracts to have a “servant’s heart” and this seems a comfortable message, perhaps one we can relate to by the small acts of  kindness and generosity we do without fanfare throughout the course of our day.  Some go beyond this by formalizing service as a regular part of their routine:  monthly participation in direct food distribution through the Community Food Bank to those whose resources won’t provide a month’s worth of nutritious food for their families or volunteering to tutor inner-city kids who have limited family resources. Indeed such acts of Servanthood are unarguably consistent with the Gospel message and the broad theme of Judeo-Christian ethics as expressed in the letter of James: “What good is it, my brothers [and sisters], if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food… [James 2:14-15] and you say, passing by: “I have no change but next time… I can’t possibly help them all… She will just use it for drugs or booze, anyway… Charity has its place, of course, but I’m committed to addressing the Big Picture, the underlying systemic causes… “

Have we acted in this way as our response to the homeless guy stationed in front of McDonald’s, the aggressive pan-handler accosting us with the only tool available to him by leveraging our guilt and resolving this temporary inconvenience?  Well, I certainly have done so, resorting to similar rationalizations, some of which are quite sound and defensible.  Yet Jesus’ call to radical servanthood suggested by the image of slavery – a special challenge given the offensiveness of the very concept to us in the 21st Century – begs the question of how far we most go in demonstrating a servant’s heart, let alone becoming a slave to all others…  This seems to go far beyond the expectation that we merely empathize and respond to the outstretched hand or the mumbled request only when it’s really convenient to do so, when we have the inclination, spare time or spare change?  Do we dare to accept the Gospel challenge of radical servanthood  to develop the habits, the predisposition, the commitment to our brothers and sisters – both those with whom we are comfortable and compatible and those who we would rather not associate and even recoil from – or must we like the rich young man, disheartened by the sacrifice, just sadly walk away [Mark 9:22]?

What cup are we asked to drink and what are the implications of the baptism we have experienced? What is our role in fulfilling God’s mission and establishing His Kingdom?

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