At the end of the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus tells his disciples that the “Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” This lesson in leadership comes because of James’ and John’s request that they be given places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hands. They view Jesus as a messiah who will continue a tradition of political leadership that wields power and seeks honors. Jesus turns this common political notion of leadership upside down. The leader is the servant of all rather than the overlord.
As we learn in the reading from Isaiah, Jesus’ notion of the leader as servant entails suffering and perhaps even death for the sake of others. This suffering servant gives everything for the people. In a word, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11). We know many rulers who fail to care for their people. Tyrants, despots and oligarchs think of their positions as ways to gain honor and power over the people and not as a means of service.
Even though the suffering servant of Isaiah enlists compassion, especially as one who offers his life in affliction, there are also rewards. As the servant offers his life for sin, he will see long life for his descendants. As the servant in affliction suffers, he will save many. Notice that the benefits help the people and not the ruler. Because this notion of an atoning leader is so alien to the secular world, politicians are either unaware of the power embedded in this leadership or openly reject it as a genuine way of proceeding.
They are unaware that this new power does not force, nor does it threaten. Rather, it leads by example, as Jesus counsels when he says the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. Honors and power have no place in the life of the servant leader. Political wisdom rejects servant leadership as impractical, weak or vague. That is, such leadership does not work. But, the servant leader does not reject any possibility that will make a more human life possible for people, even one’s own suffering and death.
Qualities of a good leader are very much on our minds during this election season. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a quick lesson in Christian leadership. James and John betray ambition when they seek the places of honor. Indeed, they have a secular view of the leader. In this view, leading is self-centered. Comparing those who lead to gain honors and power with the true leader who sees leadership as an opportunity for service of others, Jesus illustrates the kind of leadership appropriate to his disciples.
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.