James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it 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.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
I am about five years old on a car trip with my mother, my father, my brother and my two sisters. I’m seated in the middle of the back seat between my brother and my older sister. The youngest in the family, my two-year-old sister Pam, is in the front seat between my parents, asleep with her head on my mother’s lap. In the back seat my sister, my brother and I are doing what we usually do on car trips—teasing each other, poking and prodding each other, fighting with each other, pouting, screaming, and crying.
Periodically, our father or our mother intervenes: telling us to stop, threatening us with punishment, or praising the one of us who has exhibited restraint. This is all punctuated with periods of silence as we all rest from our most recent skirmish and gather strength for our next round. It is in the middle of that silence that invariably one of us calls out a question that is both particular to my family and universal to every human being in every family.
“Who’s the best?” one of us kids would ask. “Who’s the best?”
I cannot remember a time when either of parents responded to this question with my name or the name of one of my three siblings. But that did not keep us from asking the question over and over and over again. For the three of us could not give up the hope that we would hear our parents say “You…you, Lissa, or Jeff or Laurie, you are the best. You are the best.”
To let you know just how embedded this questions became in our family ritual, on one car trip in the middle of one of our rows, little Pam, newly awake and on account of her age, barely able to speak, raised her head from where it lay in my mother’s lap, and before one of us older kids could do it, cried out in her tiny toddler voice: “Who da bess?”
This kind of familial shenanigans is one way to read our Gospel for today in which the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask Jesus to allow them to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his glory, a place they imagine will be a desirable place to be. Read this way, the brothers are asking Jesus to recognize that they are in fact “the best,” the most favored and loved, the ones invited to be in closest proximity to their rabbi and friend.
Commentators on this passage most often label James and John boneheads of the first order, finding their request unfathomable given how many times Jesus has explained to them that he is on the road to different kind of glory—the glory of the cross. Remembering my and my own siblings’ needs, however, to be special, to be beloved, to be somehow set apart, I well understand their request.
Yes, “Who is the best?” we would always ask. What we wanted was not only to be declared the most beloved of all, but from that position, to lord this status and whatever else we could, over our poor, pathetic, lesser siblings.
And this is exactly what Jesus hears in James and John’s request. They do not just want reassurance. They want a place of privilege and power over others. Well aware of what connection to his place and power will mean for them, Jesus asks if they have any idea of what they are requesting of him. They, of course, are convinced that they do, to which Jesus says: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,” meaning you will suffer and die as I will.
For me these sobering words are a bit of a description about what taking on leadership invariably leads to—it is never just about glory or privilege or attention turned in your direction. It always, in my experience, comes with a cross embedded somewhere in it. But, this is not what Jesus is saying. Instead, he is introducing a new way of looking at leadership, itself. For us, Jesus says, leadership cannot be about lording it over others. On the contrary, it must be about serving others in a way that will mean we take on the position of a slave in that our will, will be so knit to the needs and the interests of those served that it is as if our very identity and freedom are encumbered. It is, in fact, as if we become invisible in the same way that slaves were invisible in the ancient social scheme.
Before you rebel against this idea, the same way that the disciples would surely have wanted to, remember that the model of leadership in Jesus’ day would’ve been exploitative and cruel, tyrannical and absolute. Jesus’ notion was meant to stand in sharp contrast to this and in sharp contrast to anything that smacks of this same kind of leadership today.
In our own time, Robert Greenleaf, a retired AT&T Executive, championed a similar model of leadership during a time when more authoritarian models of leadership dominated corporate life. In his thin little pamphlet entitled The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf, consistent with his title, wrote not about the Leader as Servant but about the Servant as Leader—a crucial distinction for him.
Greenleaf’s philosophy came into being when in 1958 he read Hermann Hesse’s fictional story entitled Journey to the East. In this story, we see a band of men on a mythical journey. The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. The group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned because they find they cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the head of the Order, its guiding spirit, and a great and noble leader.
About the servant-leader, Greenleaf says this: “The servant-leader is servant first... Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
And so this morning, who are the people, where are the needs that you feel drawn to serve? In what areas of your life or the life of the world do you want to become a part of creating healthier, wiser, freer people who themselves are more likely to want to serve?
Today at both our 9:00 and 11:15 liturgies we will see newly minted deacons of the Church proclaiming the Gospel, setting the table and sending us, through the words of the dismissal from our liturgical service, to serve in the places in which God has given us responsibility in the world. As they learn what it means to be deacons who are servant leaders, you and I can learn more about servant leadership too. We can learn to pay more attention or to pay new attention, to what Greenleaf calls our “natural desire” to serve. And we can then, with the help of others, begin to make a conscious choice to lead in this area. The order is important, Greenleaf would say, the order is important. For our leadership to be authentic and powerful in the way that Jesus describes it, must take its cues from a heart of service.
In my family we used to ask: “Who is the best?” This morning Jesus is asking us to revise this question. Instead of asking “who’s the best?” we are to ask ourselves how we may be our best for a world that needs our service and our leadership that grows from this heart of service. How are we to be our best?