Putting others first

Pentecost 21

Mark 10:32-45

Marian Free


In the name of God for whom the greatest is the one who serves. Amen.

I wonder what would be the result if I asked you to write down what you thought were the requirements for a good leader.  What would you value more highly – getting the job done or ensuring that everyone felt that they were making a contribution, forging ahead regardless or waiting for the slower ones to catch up, insisting that the task be done a particular way or seeking feedback from everyone else?

If you google “leadership” you will come up with at least three sites that claim to tell you the ten characteristics of a good leader and another that could come up with only seven. The site that caught my attention was strangely enough called Compare Business Products. Its definition of leadership was: “one’s ability to get others to willingly follow.” Vision was identified as a key characteristic of this style of leader: “A leader with vision has a clear, vivid picture of where to go, as well as a firm grasp on what success looks like and how to achieve it.” A good leader it says must also be able to communicate his or her vision and have the self discipline to work single-mindedly towards that vision and inspire others to do the same.

As well as vision, this article recommended that a leader have integrity, dedication, magnanimity, humility, openness. creativity, fairness, assertiveness and a sense of humour. An alternate site listed mission, vision, goal, competency, a strong team, communication skills, interpersonal skills, a “can do, get it done attitude”, inspiration and ambition as the qualities required by a superior leader.

Yet another felt that a good leader needed an exemplary character, enthusiasm, confidence, functioning in an orderly and purposeful manner, being able to tolerate ambiguity while remaining calm, an ability to think analytically, and a commitmentto excellence.

It is intriguing to note how different the lists are. I wonder to which, if any of these, Jesus would have given the stamp of approval.

In today’s gospel Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem. His disciples are both amazed and afraid. It is in Jerusalem that Jesus is most likely to come into conflict with the religious leaders. It is in Jerusalem that his ideas will be most exposed to scrutiny and it is in Jerusalem where his popularity will be most threatening to the leaders of the church and to the might of Rome. No wonder the disciples are amazed. No wonder they are afraid. No wonder that they let Jesus go on ahead while they hang back! If he is in danger so are they.

Jesus’ leadership is one that includes his followers. He is not so focused on the future that he has forgotten those whom he leads. So he calls the twelve out of the crowd and explains what lies ahead for him. He tells them that he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes who will condemn him to death and then to the Gentiles (the Romans) who will mock him, spit on him and kill him.

This is the third time that Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to die and for the third time the enormity of the revelation and the disciples’ complete failure to comprehend leads them to respond foolishly. This time it is James and John who respond foolishly. Despite Jesus’ previous teaching and despite the fact that more than once Jesus has used a child as an illustration of the ideal disciple, the two brothers ask to be elevated to positions of status or rank – not on earth – but in heaven! Did Jesus’ announcement make the brothers so anxious and so frightened that they wanted to assure their future –to be sure that following Jesus was going to be worth the risk? Or were they really seeking their own agrandisement at the expense of the other disciples?

Of course, we’ll never know what prompted their question. What we do know is that their request, not surprisingly, made the other disciples angry and led to Jesus to teach them about leadership. He points to the examples of leadership with which the disciples are familiar, in particular to the Romans who are ruling Palestine and whose rule is maintained by force. In the Empire power was in the hands of a few amongst whom there was fierce and sometimes violent competition for recognition and status.  Those who became rulers by wealth or by stealth ensured that they received due recognition for their status, and demanded subservience and submission from those whom they considered to be beneath them.

Jesus’ model of leadership is entirely different. In fact it is not leadership or authority that is to be prized among Jesus’ followers, but servanthood. The disciples are to stand out from the crowd, not by achieving notoriety or rank, but just the reverse. Instead of seeking recognition and status, the says, hey are to be as servants or slaves to others. This would have been an entirely novel idea in the first century, as it would be for many of our own generation. Just as it is difficult for us to get our head around the idea that the last will be first, so it a challenge to understand that in order to be the greatest in our community, we must be a slave to all.

Being a slave didn’t make it to any of our lists of the characteristics of a good leader though the first did include magnanimity and humility. The example Jesus set and the model Jesus asks us to adopt is that of putting others first – encouraging and building up those for whom we have responsibility – rather than demand that they follow our vision or do as we say. Leadership in the Jesus’ movement has nothing to do with self-agrandisement and everything to do with supporting, upholding and enhancing the lives of everyone else.  Honour is not something that can be bestowed or earned, but those who give of themselves for others, those who seek the well-being of others before their own are those who contrary to their own expectations, may discover themselves to be the greatest.

In the community formed by Jesus, there is no place for competition, no need to strive for elevation or promotion. Following in the footsteps of Jesus we relinquish all ambition and need for recognition and find our sense of purpose and meaning in putting others first.


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