Leadership – a reflection

Pentecost 20

Matthew 23.1-12, 37-39

Marian Free

 In the name of  Jesus who came among us as one who serves and who calls us to be an example of humility and love to those around us. Amen.

Two very different leaders have been in the news lately and for very different reasons. The recent visit of the Queen was greeted with much excitement in this nation. People waited for hours in the hope of catching a glimpse her and the media was consumed with accounts of what she wore, to whom she spoke and what she ate. One person who waited in the crowds saw only the Queen’s hat and yet was satisfied that the wait had been worth it and that the view of the hat was reward enough.

Despite the efforts of the Republican movement the Royal family is still much loved in this country and elsewhere. This has not always been the case. In past centuries the Royal family, like Royalty elsewhere was remote and inward looking, more interested in furthering their own interests than that of the people whom they governed. Over time the power of the monarchy has been reduced, but the affection in which they are held has grown.

How very different this is from the scenes we have witnessed recently in the Arab world and in Libya in particular. Authoritarian leaders who have inspired only fear and loathing, have faced angry crowds calling for their demise. In Libya, a family which once had wealth and power were forced to flea and the nation’s former leader was dragged from a drain in which he sought refuge from the mob.

The reaction to these very different leaders tells us something about the nature of their leadership. While she has little formal power, the Queen is gracious and compassionate, demonstrating an interest in those for whom she has titular responsibility. At the time of the floods in Brisbane and the earthquake in Christchurch, the Queen sent messages of condolence and Prince William paid a visit to demonstrate the concern felt by the Royal family for those in this far flung part of the Commonwealth. In contrast, it appears that Gaddafi had little interest in or regard for the people he governed. From what we can gather, he enriched himself and his family at the expense of the Libyan people, he was removed from the concerns of the people, he limited their freedom and ruthlessly quelled any opposition.

Gaddafi was not alone in the way he exercised his power. In many parts of the world there are leaders who, sometimes despite good beginnings, get caught up in their own self-importance and self-aggrandisement and become increasingly divorced from the people whom they are called to serve.

Of course, democracy does not prevent arrogance and self-centredness in those who lead, but there are checks and balances to ensure that leaders exercise their leadership responsibly, that they don’t take advantage of their position to enrich themselves and that they don’t use violence to quell opposition. If the checks and balances fail, the people can hope for an election at which those who are found wanting can be removed from office without civil war or assassination.

Power and authority can be very seductive. It is human nature for someone to want public recognition and to want to be in a position in which to be able to make decisions about the things that affect their life. The problem is that the desire for recognition can turn into the desire for adulation, and decisions which are made to benefit one person or group of people very often disadvantage another.

In today’s readings we have a number of different examples of leadership. In the Gospel, Jesus attacks the Pharisees who use their leadership status to gain benefits and recognition for themselves and who in the process of seeking ease for themselves have placed burdens on the shoulders of others. In contrast, Paul’s concern for the Thessalonians outweighs his concern for himself.  He cannot rest until he knows how they are and how they are bearing up under persecution. He is so worried that he sends Timothy to encourage them and so relieved when he hears that they are holding fast. Even when Paul was with the community in Thessalonica he put their needs before his own, saying that he wants to share with them not only the gospel but also his very self.

Yet another example of leadership is found in the reading from Joshua. Joshua takes over where Moses leaves off. It is his task to lead the people of Israel across the river Jordan and into the promised land. In order to do that, he and the priests stand in the breach, holding back the water and putting themselves at risk for the sake of the people and seeing them safely across.

The leadership that Jesus models and that Joshua and Paul exhibit is that of service, of putting the other first, of standing between them and danger, and ultimately of risking their lives for those whom they serve. This sort of leadership does not seek public recognition or reward but finds satisfaction in promoting the happiness and security of others.  A leader who follows Christ does not seek to promote his or her own interests, but aims to encourage and build up those around them.

Whether we have responsibility for large numbers of people or only a few, whether we exercise influence on a wide scale or only within the scope of our families and friends, whether we have power over many or only over one, we are called first and foremost to serve, to exercise leadership by putting ourselves and our own needs second and the needs of others first. Only in this way will we break down the barriers which divide, contribute to harmony and peace in the world and demonstrate God’s love for all people.


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