There’s a good story told about Jesus when he ascended into heaven and was greeted by two angels. When asked how his mission went on earth, he told them it went very well. He had left his mission to be continued by his disciples. “I have left it in their hands to continue my work of healing, forgiveness and love,” said Jesus with great confidence.
“But what if they fail in this mission to continue your work? What would be your Plan B?” asked the angel.
“I have no Plan B” he said. “These fishermen, tax collectors and followers are my only plan!”
Leadership is a more recent preoccupation. With new leadership in our pope, we have witnessed a significant change in style, priorities and charisma. A federal election has prompted discernment about what values we would choose in a leader of the country. The United States, too, is gearing up for a change in presidential leadership.
This provides us with an opportunity to think about the kind of leadership Jesus modelled and how his example can affect the way we lead and the way we choose to trust a leader. We can take a look at today’s Gospel reading in the light of this theme. James and John are basking in the successful ministry of Jesus. They are eager to have a place of honour at his right and left, and Jesus asks them a huge question: “Are you able to drink of the cup that I must drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I must be baptized?”
Leadership for Jesus has to do with the willingness to give one’s life for another. The most trusted are leaders who put service ahead of title, others’ needs ahead of their own advancement, and willing sacrifice ahead of power and prestige. Jesus’ prediction that James and John too will suffer a similar fate to his only underlines the quality of a commitment they must grow into as his disciples.
I recall a story from a lecture some years ago, that a shepherd, confronted by a hungry wolf intent on his sheep, would take his staff, stand between the predator and his sheep and intentionally bare his neck for the wolf’s attack. As the wolf lunged for him, he would quickly drive his staff down the wolf’s gaping mouth. The point of the lecture was well taken. Servant leadership requires a certain vulnerability and willingness to give one’s life for the sake of another.
It strikes me too that this kind of leadership is a powerful antidote to the ego-driven leadership that insists others serve us. Jesus challenges his disciples with the example of the leaders of his day: “They lord it over others and make their authority felt.” With great sternness, Jesus says: “This is not how it is to be among you. Those who lead must be servant of all.”
The bottom line is, if your master was a servant and gave his life for others, you too must be intentional, selfless and generous in your service to others.
The Suffering Servant song of Isaiah in the first reading is a worthwhile reminder to us of Jesus. That is why we hear it every Good Friday. It gives a glimpse into the vulnerability of a God who would take on human flesh and suffer for the sake of others.
In the second reading we are invited to approach the throne of grace with boldness. This kind of boldness is not to be mistaken for an ego-driven striving for title, recognition and power. We are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that we approach the throne in order to “receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.”
Pope Francis has this message at the centre of his ministry by promoting a deeper humility among the leaders of the church. Addressing the members of the College of Cardinals at the ordination of 20 new clergy for the Diocese of Rome, Pope Francis preached a message of leadership through charity. He said: “The self-centred person inevitably seeks his own interests; he thinks this is normal, even necessary. Those “interests” can even be cloaked in noble appearances, but underlying them all is “self-interest.” Charity, however, makes us draw back from the centre in order to set ourselves in the real centre, which is Christ alone.”
How does this apply to me? Good question. Let us begin with all those who are in leadership positions: parents, teachers, clergy, health care workers, government officials, anyone who has been charged with the care and concern for others. We can ask ourselves some pretty tough questions around our own willingness to serve with a servant’s heart, rather than make our “authority” felt!
For example, a child who asks the question “why” a million times could eventually get the answer from a frustrated parent: “Because I said so.” Quite understandable in certain circumstances. But if we want our children to grow up inquisitive, investigative, and reflective, this answer will shut those virtues down very quickly. I’m always reminded that becoming a strict authoritarian for your kids can lead to great trouble later on in life, when your authority is substituted by the authority of a peer group or an unscrupulous culture!
We have enshrined in our liturgical year a prayer that is said for all who hold public office. This prayer is one of 10 that are used in the Good Friday Liturgy. We pray: “that our God and Lord may direct their minds and hearts according to his will for the true peace and freedom of all.” This prayer could be used more universally and personally for all who are in positions of leadership. We are commissioned to lead in a way that “brings true peace and freedom to all.”
Jesus has left us with his task and mission. “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Let us strive to approach our leadership with humility, mercy and grace!
Williston is a retired Parish Life Director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.