Think about people you know who are in leadership positions. Who are the effective and respected leaders? Why do you think they are effective and respected?
In this week’s Gospel reading from Mark (Mark 10:35-45), two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, make an audacious request, telling Jesus they want him “to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Seemingly not bothered by this, Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?” (We can see here the sort of close friendship Jesus has with his followers and they with him if they feel they can ask Jesus for anything and Jesus is at least willing to hear their request.)
When we hear what James and John want, it starts to become clear that they have not yet grasped what the mission of Jesus is. What they want is glory and power, to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand. In Jesus’ world, this is where a governor or leader’s chief advisors would sit. In effect, James and John are asking to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. They are working under the assumption that Jesus is here to be a new earthly king, and they want to make sure Jesus is ready to consider them for important positions in his administration.
You can almost see Jesus sadly shaking his head at this point as he replies, “You do not know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism that I will be baptized with?” When James and John confidently answer, “We can,” again we sense that they are missing something important in Jesus’ message. They are willing to sign up to be loyal to Jesus and maybe even to follow him into battle if need be, but they do not grasp the suffering that will come by following in the steps of Jesus.
Overhearing this exchange between Jesus, James, and John, the other disciples get angry with James and John. The story does not explain their anger precisely: are they upset that they did not think to ask for a place of honor in Jesus’ kingdom? Are they embarrassed that James and John would be so bold to ask Jesus for this sort of favor? Whatever the reason, Jesus, as friend and leader, calls the group together, acting as a mediator in hopes of keeping the group together.
What Jesus says next is crucial for understanding the mission of Jesus. Jesus starts with the political context in which they live, where Roman rulers lord their power over people, often extracting severe taxes that placed heavy economic burden on the Jewish peasants. These leaders liked to emphasize their importance by treating others poorly, simply because they could. Then Jesus goes on to explain that the disciples cannot order and govern their lives following the pattern of Roman domination. Rather, they need to follow the pattern set by Jesus himself, a pattern of service. With this, Jesus is instituting a radically new way of understanding leadership–as serving the needs of all. Being a leader is not about gaining power and glory for yourself. Instead, being a leader means working for the common good.
It might seem at first that this Gospel is encouraging us not to take on leadership roles. But when read in light of the rest of scripture, I think its message is more complex than that. All of us have been given skills and talents that can be used to make the world a better place, to support the common good, and to demonstrate love for God and neighbor. And many people have been called to be leaders. Just think about all the leadership roles in the world of high school: captain of a sports team, first chair in the orchestra, the lead role in the play, the newspaper or yearbook editor, members of student council, head of a club, not to mention people who are managers at their workplace or teen leaders in their church. Some people who take on these leadership roles allow it to go to their heads; they assume that they are better than everyone else and use their position to get what they want for themselves. But these people are not true leaders. True leaders know that with leadership comes responsibility, responsibility to promote the common good, to look out for and include the marginalized, and to care for others and God’s creation. If we want to know what kind of leader we should be, we have to look no further than Jesus as our example.
In what areas of your life are you called to be a leader? How would you describe yourself as a leader? Are you more like James and John or do you follow in the path of Jesus’ leadership example?