When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ – Matthew 20:24-28
One Sunday morning a couple of years ago one of my fellow parishioners saw me standing at the end of the processional line-up as we waited to go into the church. As a chalice minister I would be part of the processional, but I of course wouldn’t be the last in line. I was merely waiting to give a message to someone before the worship service started, and he mistook that for jockeying for position.
He upbraided me for getting beyond myself and trying to take a place that didn’t belong to me. Was I a priest, now? Had I suddenly been ordained? What gave me the right to be there?
It reminded me of the ten disciples being angry at the Sons of Zebedee for trying to get up next to Jesus. How ironic that in this day and age the coveted place is now at the end of the line. I don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind when he taught us that to be leaders we must be servants and slaves.
We are called to something radical when we become part of a Christian faith community. Christ asks of us nothing less than giving our hearts completely to one another like lovers.
Think about what that might mean. When we love someone our hearts are harnessed to them. We marvel at their very nature – the particular way they tilt their head, the gap between their teeth, the mole on their chin. We long for them to be happy, and when they are we celebrate. When they suffer we do, too. We work to get them what they need, and we do not consider this a burden but rather a privilege. We are willing to be changed, changed at our very cores, by the love we hold, for the sake of the ones we love. And we are joined to them, to these particular people, for the long haul.
When Jesus tells his disciples to be servant leaders, he means something like this. He means to care passionately, to be willing to suffer, to give over our self-important hearts to the service of those who, because they are in our spiritual community, are in our care. Leading from underneath means committing ourselves to one another’s well being as we would to our beloved’s. Nothing less.
As the Sufi mystic Rumi says,
Love is reckless; not reason.
Reason seeks a profit.
Love comes on strong,
consuming herself, unabashed.
Yet, in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard surfaced and straightforward.
Having died of self-interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows.
Without cause God gave us Being;
without cause, give it back again.
(Masnavi, Teachings of Rumi, ed. & tr. E.H. Whinfield)