Lessons on Leadership

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.  And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’  She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”  But, Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’  They said to him, ‘We are able.’  He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

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 (as) a ransom for many.’”

~ Matthew 20.20-28, NRSV

Last year, I became the mother of a son whose name is John no less.  Consequently, this story takes on a new, richer and deeper meaning.  While known as nurturers and caretakers, mothers are leaders in their own right.  This is clearly demonstrated in the story of James and John’s mother.

Earlier in the story, there had been a discussion among the disciples as to who was the greatest and while Jesus had provided the answer, setting a child before them, it probably was not what they wanted to hear.[i]  And for a few of them, perhaps James and John, the question had not really been answered.  “Really, Jesus, who is the greatest?  I know what you want us to believe but be honest, which one of us is your favorite?”

It’s American to want to be preferred and in turn, to receive special treatment, whether we are leaders or not.  We need only look at the strip of red carpet that is placed in airports for platinum and gold members, for example.  It’s human to question God’s love and His ability to relate to each of us as individuals, too difficult to believe that we are all special to Him, that “God shows no partiality.”[ii]  However, despite our doubts, God does not love certain people or cultural groups.  God’s love is not prejudicial or stereotypical.

The mother in Matthew’s story didn’t seem to have a favorite either as she presented both her sons to Jesus.  She is thankful for the great example and role model that Jesus has been to her sons.  She appreciates the lessons that he has taught them.  But, she wants something more.  She is aware that there are twelve disciples but like most parents, she thinks that her boys are special maybe even better than the other ten disciples.  And she has every intention of ensuring that they get what they deserve.

We are not told where the desire originated, whether James and John had asked their mother to talk to Jesus on their behalf.  We don’t know if this position would be the fulfillment of her dream or theirs.  But, like many mothers, she wanted the best for her sons and wanted to ensure that for their labor they had a sort of retirement package, which included VIP seating with Jesus.

Jesus’ question is a sobering one: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  While we seek position and visibility, are we prepared for what is required?  Do we even know what we have asked for?  It is not a cup made especially for them but it is Christ’s cup.  They will drink from the same cup!

I don’t know how much time elapsed; the scripture does not tell us.  But, the conversation continued so they did not go home and sleep on it.  They did not confer with one another and then respond.  No, they said, “We are able.”  Perhaps, it is because they thought themselves to be like Jesus.

They had seen him teach and maybe they thought, “This seems easy enough.  We can do that.”  They had witnessed Jesus perform miracles and perhaps they believed, “We have walked with him.  We have the faith.  We can do that.”  But, they had not yet drunk the cup; they are not aware of its content.  And though Jesus says that they will and they believe that they are able, Jesus tells them that he does not choose the seating arrangement.  Though the persons will be sitting right next to him, they are not persons that he has selected.  No, these persons will be picked because they have been prepared by God, the Father.

As the Master teacher, Jesus sees a lesson here.  He reminds his students of what they have seen in the culture, how the godless leaders treat those under their guidance and influence.  Jesus says that they are oppressive, dictators, bullies even.  They use their power to persecute. They use their leadership to their benefit but to the detriment of others.  But, Jesus reminds them that they are not to behave in the same way and that we, as Christians, lead differently.

Redefining leadership and rearranging the social hierarchy, he says that those who are leaders are servants.  We serve in order to lead or because we are called to serve, we are called to lead.  Great leaders are great servants and great servants make great leaders.  This teaching is often associated with Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model.[iii]  But, Jesus goes a bit further, saying, “If you want to be first, you have to be a slave.”  The word servant sounds better than slave as one image calls us to imagine a person in a clean uniform and white gloves while the other, due to American slavery, might suggest to us a person dressed poorly and in chains who is abused and held against her or his will.  But, this was not the case during the days of Jesus and this harsh reality should not prevent us from answering the call to serve as Christ’s slave.

Still, in “the land of the free,” this is a hard saying for many as slaves serve at the pleasure of their master.  Their will, purpose and subsequent goals are not their own but that of their master.  But, the Westminster Catechism provides a bit of insight in its declaration that “man’s chief end is to glorify God.”[iv]  It is to say that all that we do is not for our pleasure but to the praise and credit of God.   All that we do is for God and through God and because of God.  Our ability and our subsequent accomplishments are possible because of God.

Becoming a slave, Jesus says this is the way that we become number one.  Not in the “head honcho” sense but “just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life (as) a ransom for many.”  The disciples had listened to his teachings and had witnessed the miracles of his hands but they had also lived with him.  He had shared with them the purpose of his life.  They knew that he had come to serve, to give his life and who were they to assume that they should behave any differently.  If they were to be his disciples, then they were not to think themselves greater than the Teacher.  Sadly, they had already shown signs that they might think themselves to be like him and might begin to credit themselves with his work.  We need only look at the story of the Canaanite woman and their response: “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’  But he did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”[v]  They were so close to Jesus that they had taken on his name.

We learn many lessons from this story but as it relates to leadership, I would like to suggest a few morals.  Primarily, leadership can be requested. The mother of James and John asked that they be placed in key positions.  Without an interview, a leadership assessment or even Jesus’ thoughts on their abilities, she asks that they be placed in closest proximity to him.  I am not suggesting that they were “mama’s boys” or that her desire is wrong but our aspiration must align itself with the will of God.  It does not matter who our parents desire us to be but it is ultimately up to God our position in his kingdom and in Christ’s ministry both of which require preparation.  And it should not be done as a favor.

We all think ourselves to be leaders and there are persons who are willing to ask that we be.  For our family members, it does not matter if we are called or equipped but it is because of their relationship to us and their love for us.  They simply want the best for us and the best are in the front and the center of attention.  This is one of the downfalls of many leaders who have been placed in positions of authority because of a favor, familial or financial connections.  Leadership is inherited in some churches as the church is passed down from father to son.  In this case, the church becomes a personal possession, believed to be a right of ownership.  However, despite the fact that James and John were his disciples, their proximity did not guarantee a position.  We can ask for a leadership position but it does not mean that we will receive it.  Ultimately, we should not follow Christ because we want to lead.

Secondly, leadership has requirements.  It is not a position of leisure but if one is to serve then there is a cup.  It is the cup of Christ’s suffering.[i]  We will drink it because we will suffer in his name.  Jesus did not hide this harsh reality from his disciples.[ii]  The sufferings will come from various directions and will seem to multiply.  Paul knew this truth well.  He writes to the church at Corinth: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning.  Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day, I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”[iii]    We do not simply become leaders, at least not good ones, because of who we know.  We become good leaders because we know that it will be a sacrifice and we decide to serve anyway.

Thirdly, leadership is a service.  Though leadership can be requested, it is not often the story of those who serve.  It certainly was not mine and we need only look at the biblical narrative for a list of excuses as those chosen did not want to lead.  Moses didn’t think that he spoke well; perhaps, he had a stutter.[iv]   Isaiah described himself as a man of unclean lips, the result of community in which he lived.[v] Jeremiah said that he was too young and inexperienced to speak and the list continues.[vi]  We lead at the request of God.  We answer a call to serve.

Paul says it well, writing “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry.”[vii]  Anyone who is called to serve and who practices any amount or form of self- reflection knows that we serve because of God’s mercy.  God has extended mercy to us.  Knowing the depth of our depravity, He still enlists us in the work of His divinity.  And it is a merciful work; we both give and receive mercy.  We serve and are served in Jesus’ name.

Finally, leadership is modeled.  Future leaders are born but they must be made.  There must be an example, an illustration or a pattern.  Oswald Chambers said, “There is no such thing as a self- made spiritual leader.  He (or she) is able to influence others spiritually because the Spirit is able to work in and through him (or her) to a greater degree than in those he leads.”  With that being said, I am not suggesting that Jesus is asking leaders to be martyrs.  He has already died for us; we don’t need to die for our congregations.  Though many would describe their treatment at church meetings as persecution, he is not asking that we be crucified.  Instead, Jesus is saying that our service is selfless and he is not asking us to do something that he has not already done.  In fact, he tells his disciples that this is the reason why he came.[viii]

Though he is powerful, he did not come to subject us to it.  Despite his position, he did not use it to his advantage.  This is how race tells us to lead and unlike “race men,” Jesus did not come to only help “his people.”  No, Jesus is not only the Lord of lords but the Leader of leaders because he is the greatest servant.


[i] Luke 22.42

[ii] Matthew 10.16-23

[iii] Second Corinthians 11.24-27, NRSV

[iv] Exodus 6.12

[v] Isaiah 6.5

[vi] Jeremiah 1.6

[vii] Second Corinthians 4.1

[viii] Matthew 16.21


[i] Matthew 18.1-4

[ii] Romans 2.11, NRSV

[iii] This phrase and concept was coined by Robert Greenleaf in the essay “The Servant as Leader” in 1970.  He writes, “The servant- leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  That person is sharply differently from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader- first and the servant- first are two extreme types.  Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”  He was not inspired by the story in Matthew but by Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East.

[iv] Psalm 86; Isaiah 60.21; Romans 11.26; The Revelation 4.11

[v] Matthew 15.21-23, NRSV (emphasis added)

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