Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him 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.’” Mark 10:35-45

This is a great text on leadership. It begins with the sort of question that we might think…but that we usually know better than to ask. James and John think about leadership as a positional issue. They think about leadership coming from the “top down.” Very common. Very human. Very much in line with the ways of the world. So they assume the role of pushy apple polishers and ask to be moved up to the front of the line.

We all know the type. We might be the type. Seeing it in print reveals how inappropriate their request is. Not surprisingly, when the writer of Matthew saw this text, he didn’t seem to like it much. Neither did the rest of the disciples. So Matthew changed it. Look how Matthew tells the story:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ (Matthew 20:20-21)

Do you notice what Matthew did? Not only did he turn the mother of James and John into a domineering stage mother, he took the heat off the impertinence of James and John. Matthew never wants the disciples to look bad. But he misses the point. It isn’t the impoliteness of the request that Jesus responds to, it is their assumption about how leadership works.

Jesus – who knows that he too serves under another authority – it is not mine to grant – helps James and John know that true leadership comes from the bottom up. It comes from a place of loving our neighbor. It comes from a place of servanthood. It is different than the “my way or the highway”, “do what I say, or else!” leadership styles so common in life.

Jesus leads by example. He walks his talk. He links leadership to humility before honor, serving before being served. He sees leadership as paying the price rather than rising in place, or getting a raise or seeking some praise. He is willing to pay that price – giving his life as a ransom for many.

And Jesus knows, as one day James and John would find out, that God’s mission in the world will always be driven forward by the selflessness, the self-giving love, exemplified in the lives of those who choose to follow Jesus. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we all have other people in our lives who count on us. We all have areas where we lead, and areas where we follow. Help us always approach our lives as servants, seeking always the willingness to assume our responsibilities rather than asserting our privileges. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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