Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 21: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 11, 2018

Servant leadership


Is 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

Robert Greenleaf is a guru of modern corporate management. He wrote several widely read books on the qualities of good leadership for heads of corporations and other institutions. 

His name for what he considered good leadership was “servant leadership.”

The 10 qualities he identifies as such leadership are: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community.

Because the term “servant leadership” seems to be a Gospel concept and because of the virtues associated with such leadership, most readers thought that Greenleaf drew his ideas from the New Testament. In fact, Greenleaf had no particular religious convictions and drew his ideas from his own experience of effective leadership.

But as the Gospel selection this Sunday from Mark illustrates, long before Greenleaf proposed such a vision of effective leadership, Jesus had instructed his disciples to be servant leaders as well.

The scene takes place as Jesus and his disciples are on their fateful journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where Jesus will ultimately be arrested, tortured and crucified. During the journey Jesus tries to alert his often-unwitting disciples to what lies before him. The scene we hear this Sunday is the third and last of Jesus’ so-called “passion predictions” and, as was the case previously, the disciples seem oblivious to what Jesus is telling them. 

In this instance, two disciples, James and John, ask Jesus when he comes “into his glory” to give them places of honor at his right and left. When the other disciples see the maneuver of these two, they “became indignant.” 

Jesus gathers them all together and tries to teach them one of the most profound lessons in true discipleship. He notes that the “rulers of the Gentiles” (the Romans) “lord it over” their subjects. Their so-called “great ones make their authority over them felt.” 

“It cannot be so with you,” Jesus tells his disciples. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Their leadership is to be true servant leadership.

Equally important is the source and motivation for this type of leadership that Jesus proposes: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is a key teaching of the entire Gospel. 

Jesus’ whole life and mission — his teaching, healing, outreach to those on the margin, words and acts of mercy and compassion —was a form of service, an act of gracious love poured out for the sake of others. In fact, Jesus’ death — the ultimate cost of his mission of love — would also be a consummate act of service. 

The Greek word for service used in all these instances is “diakonia” — a powerful Gospel virtue that characterizes the way true disciples of Jesus treat others, particularly those they are called to lead.

Seeking to be of service to others, striving to move beyond a focus only our own needs, having the humility and goodness not to “lord it over others” or to oppress or exploit in any way those for whom we are responsible is the heart of Jesus’ teaching and therefore the heart of the Christian norm for true discipleship.

What a powerful Gospel lesson this Sunday Gospel offers the church this week.

The crisis that has shaken the church in recent weeks is a powerful challenge to our leaders, just as it was for Jesus’ first disciples. But it also applies to all of us, whether we have leadership roles in the church or in our workplace or whether we are ordinary people going about our daily lives. 

The constant teaching of Jesus and the heart of our Christian tradition urges us to reach beyond our concerns and to be of service to others with love and compassion. 


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