I grew up in a musical family, in more than one way.
As with many things, I come by it honestly. My Grandmother was a music teacher for the greater part of her life, and for years was an active member of the University Park UMC choir. She regularly goes to the theatre, be it for the opera or for musicals that come to Dallas.
My mother then inherited a love of music from her that she shared with my father as well, one he cultivated on his own. Both have an eclectic taste in music, spanning from the classical to the contemporary, rock, blues, country, and everything in between. Included in that is a love for musical theatre. This love was given to me and my brother. Both of us sing to some degree, and both of us were in band.
I was exposed to a great many kinds of music growing up, but some of the most fun was watching musicals with my family, and joining in when we know the words. One of my mother’s favorites is one she was actually able to play in when she was in band in High School: “Fiddler on the Roof.” The tale of Tevya and his family in turn of the century Russia, the community of Jews during the pogroms, and their struggles and triumphs, was always one that I enjoyed.
My mind comes to this particular musical because of a habit that Tevya, the main character, often did. Frequently he was faced with a decision, pitting him and his love of tradition with that of the changing world that his daughters and his family was faced with. When faced with a crucial choice, this wise figure often weighed the outcomes and reasons for each with the phrase “On the other hand…” For example, when one of his daughters begged him for his permission to marry the man she loved, a poor tailor, rather than the man who she was going to marry, a much older and richer butcher, he needed to make the decision. On the one hand was the tradition–he had the right to choose who his daughter ought to marry! And the butcher, though much older, was far more able to take care of his daughter and provide a good life for her. On the other hand, his daughter was always very forceful, and he knew this poor tailor since he was a boy. He was a good man, even though he was poor. And though it’s not traditional, it would make her more happy.
On and on he would agonize, weighing one hand against the other, and throughout the musical, he would consider what’s “on the other hand.” He would do it so frequently, it would sound like he had more than just two hands! But it’s a good and useful tool for figuring out the right decision to make: weighing the consequences of each side, and siding with the best argument.
When we hear today’s scripture, we are confronted with two very different approaches to leadership.
One of these is established by James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The other is established by Jesus, the corrective to the approach James and John have. Now, if we are to attempt to weigh these two approaches purely on their merits and not on how we as followers of Christ are called to do so, one would definitely win out over the other, and it wouldn’t be Jesus’s. Which, of course, is why we need Jesus’s corrective.
On the James and John Hand…
As we begin the passage, we are bombarded with the initial question that starts this whole controversy:
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Well, that’s not really as much of a question as it is a demand. We’ll come back to that. Jesus assents to hearing their demand, and they proceed: “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”
Let’s talk about this request for a little bit, because there’s a lot here to unpack, and it reveals a heck of a lot more about ourselves than it does about James and John.
First of all, this appears to be a bit of an impertinent question, and frankly a little alien to our ears. I mean, what kind of question is it to ask about table seating? But this isn’t really as much about table seating as it is about power, and leadership. See, what James and John are doing are asking to be Jesus’s second-in-command whenever Jesus “comes into his glory.”
When they ask this, they’re tipping their hand, because when they say this, they expect Jesus to come into his glory by taking over in the conventional way–the way they are used to people taking over. They are saying to Jesus that, when you storm the gates, we want to be the ones leading your armies, and when it’s all over, we want to be the ones who have the power in your kingdom.
Now, taken on its face, and knowing what we know about Jesus, this is a pretty ridiculous request. But let’s compare it to our own experience, and something that I see quite a bit in our own culture, and even in religious sphere of life. I want to talk about our concept of “Leadership.”
Leadership is an industry in the modern age. No longer do we think of leadership in primarily military terms, as James and John do, but rather in business terms, and the business of leadership is booming.
In any given year, there are countless conferences devoted to leadership. There are entire bookshelves devoted to leadership strategies. How the be the best kind of leader. How to grow your leaders. How to shape new leaders, cultivate leaders, and send out a new generation of leaders.
Now, this may be all fine well and good, but honestly, it makes me wary. What kind of leaders are we making? And what leaders are actually doing the leading? And why are there so many different ways of doing it, if it’s supposedly so simple? Well, the thing is, what we’re doing in the church is simply taking our cues from the business world when it comes to leadership, sticking Christian branding on it, and falling over ourselves to pay for it.
The kind of leadership being extolled are usually traditionally masculine, aggressive, hierarchical, and often marked by a very top-down model. This may work in the business world, but when compared to what Jesus teaches, it’s usually far from the mark.
Going back to James and John, we see this as exactly the kind of leadership they’re after.
They want to be right there at the top, leading the armies and showing that they are in control, they are in power, second only to God himself. This is conventional leadership to a tee. They see the position, they assert themselves and demand to be the leaders, as only those who take power are the ones who get the power. Or so conventional wisdom asserts.
On Jesus’s hand…
All of what I just said, to Jesus, is absolutely the wrong way we ought to behave, lead, and be stewards of this world.
Jesus himself says, “You don’t really know what you’re asking.” This becomes all the more evident when you read the passage just previous to this, where Jesus talks about how he sees himself coming into glory.
How is Jesus going to come into his glory? By going to Jerusalem, being arrested, beaten, and finally, executed. Then, three days later, he will rise from the dead. It is precisely after this that James and John make their demand, and it is because of that demand, Jesus makes the keen observation that none of these disciples were really listening.
Now, in Mark’s Gospel, this is par for the course. The disciples are really more duh-sciples than anything else in Mark. They are consistently wrongheaded about just about everything, and this is no exception.
So Jesus flat out tells them that they have no idea what Jesus’s glory is going to look like. They are too wrapped up in the standard model of leadership they’ve been given all their life, leadership that is aggressive, assertive, violent, prone to shows of power and domination. And he calls them out on it.
“Consider this,” he say. “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around.”
Boom. That was a smackdown . Why? Because he just called them Gentiles–when all of these men following him were Jews. Gentile, goyim, was a slur for Jewish people. An insult. Not-chosen. Not righteous. Jesus says that this is the way Unrighteous people have their leaders act, and this is not how you ought to act.
You, my followers, are supposed to be righteous. So here’s the deal. Here’s how leadership is supposed to work. Good leadership. Godly leadership. You wanna know what a good leader looks like? A good leader looks like a slave. Not like a CEO. Not like a general. Not like a governor, a senator, or a king. A slave. Lowest of the low. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all. The Son of man didn’t come to be served but to serve. And so must you. I came to give life and liberate all people, and the only way I’m going to do that is by giving my very life for others. People aren’t going to be liberated by a king who acts like he’s better than everyone, but a slave who dies for all.
Jesus Hand Trumps All Others.
Jesus hand trumps all others, not because it makes sense, but because it’s simply right. No king yet has ever saved the world by acting like a king. Jesus came as a poor servant, suffered and died, and in that suffering and sacrifice, defeated death and sin and gave resurrection to all, liberation to all, salvation to all. It’s only by service, humility, and care for the least of everyone that we are going to be saved.
So keep that in mind. Jesus didn’t hold leadership seminars. Jesus didn’t write any books on the best practices of effective leaders, because effectiveness is not what he was concerned with. He was concerned with righteousness. He was concerned with holiness, justice, mercy, and peace. That comes with an attitude of service. Not domination. Not assertiveness. Not like a general. Like a slave. And it is with service, that we are set free. Amen.