Day 15: The Power of Servant Leadership
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
We must not forget that true power, at whatever level, is service, which has its luminous summit on the Cross. With great wisdom Benedict XVI reminded the Church many times that for man, authority is often synonymous with possession, dominion, success. For God, authority is always synonymous with service, humility, love. It means to enter into Jesus’ logic who bends down to wash the feet of the Apostles.[i]
Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome
Heavenly Father, you are the restorer and lover of blamelessness. We ask you to direct unto yourself the hearts of us, your servants, that we, being kindled with the fire of your Spirit, may be found steadfast in faith and effectually given to all good works, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God now and forever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
The story of Esther is how God saved the exiled Jews from an impossible situation when Haman, a key advisor to the Persian King Ahasuerus, plotted to exterminate them. Esther was in Ahasuerus’ harem but kept her Jewish identity a secret. When Haman became enraged that Mordecai, Esther’s adopted father, refused to bow down to him, Haman cooked up a plot to exterminate not only Mordecai but all the Jews. Mordecai asked Esther to risk her life by seeking an unplanned audience before the King to expose the plot. At a banquet, Esther exposed Haman’s treachery which led to Haman’s being hanged. This text is part of the “extended version” passed down in the Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament. As such, this text is considered canonical by both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but only secondarily canonical by Anglicans. Although the Reformers rejected this text as a later addition, Anglicans take the position that this text is “edifying reading.” However, since its canonical status is in dispute, no doctrine should be formed from it. The secondary status of this text is unfortunate since it records one of the most heart-felt prayers recorded in the Old Testament.
Esther 13.8-18 (Prayer of Mordecai)
8And now, O Lord God, O King, O God of Abraham, spare your people since they look to you, because our adversaries are looking down on us for destruction and they long to ruin your ancient inheritance. 9Do not disregard your portion, the people whom you ransomed for yourself out of the land of Egypt. 10Listen to my supplication and be favorably inclined to your lot. Turn our grief back to rejoicing so that living, we might sing praises to your name. O Lord, do not destroy the mouths of those who praise you.
11Then all Israel cried out with everything they had, since their death was at hand. 12But Esther, the Queen, sought refuge in the Lord, making the struggle against death her own. 13So she removed her glorious finery and put on garments of anguish and mourning. Instead of rich perfumes, she covered her head with ashes and dirt. She greatly abased her body and every place on her head made for rejoicing, she filled with disheveled hair.
14Then she sought to bind the Lord God of Israel and said, “My Lord, you are our one and only King. Help me; I am alone and there is no one to help except you. 15My travail is close by. 16From my birth, I have heard from the tribe of my forefathers that you, O Lord, took Israel out of all the nations and our fathers out of all their forbearers to have a perpetual inheritance. You acted toward them as you promised. 17And now, we have sinned against you and you have handed us over into the hands of our enemies 18because we honored their gods.”
New Testament Lesson
James and John are seeking worldly glory. They use their mother to get out in front of the other disciples and secure an insider spot in Jesus’ coming kingdom now that they’re headed toward Jerusalem. Note that the angry reaction of the other disciples demonstrates that they were thinking the same thing as James and John.[iii] No one could shake the expectation, built up over centuries, that the Messiah would come back to establish a political kingdom and would rule by force. The disciples want choice seats at the table of power when the Romans are crushed and Israel restored. But Jesus has something else in mind. Greatness lies in being a servant. Jesus issues the closest thing to a succinct statement of his mission: he’s come to offer his life as a “ransom” for many. A ransom was the price of buying back a slave, just as God had done in releasing Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus envisions himself as the ransom payment required to buy back his people from the slavery of sin.
17Now, as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside privately and said to them on the way, 18”Look, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be handed over to the High Priests and the Scribes and they will sentence Him to death. 19Then they will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and flog Him. And He will be crucified and on the third day will be raised again.”
20Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him along with her sons. Kneeling down, she requested something from him. 21So He said to her, “What do you want?” She said to Him, “Say that my two sons might sit, one on your right hand and the other on your left hand, when you come into your kingdom.” 22Answering, Jesus said, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink from the cup from which I’m about to drink?” They said to him, “Sure, we’re able.” 23He said to them, “Indeed, from my cup you will drink, but to sit at my right hand and or at my left hand is not for me to give, but for whomever it has been prepared by my Father.”
24When they heard it, the ten were indignant at the two brothers. 25So Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them and those of the ruling class exercise authority over them. 26But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant 27and whoever among you wants to be first must be slave of all. 28For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Esther risked her life for her people. But, before she did so, she humbled herself before God. How do you present yourself before God? Do you come before God as a penitent sinner?
- How do you deal with impossible situations? Do you try to take control or do you involve God in some significant way? How do you find peace in the midst of a storm?
- Are you like James and John, seeking advantage for yourself over others? How do you react when someone is honored, promoted or advanced at your expense or in an unjust way?
- How do you practice being a servant? Do you really believe that greatness is found in being a lowly servant? How do you live in a culture that thoroughly rejects this idea?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Both our texts today mention the idea of a “ransom” payment. In our OT text, Mordecai says that God ransomed Israel when He brought her out of slavery. In our NT text, Jesus, looking ahead to his crucifixion, says that he’s about to offer his life as a “ransom for many.”
The idea that God has to ransom sinners is problematic. After all, to whom is God supposed to pay the ransom? An early idea developed that God owes the ransom payment to Satan. But the claim that God owed anything to Satan came under sustained suspicion in the early church and was generally rejected from the late Middle Ages onward.
The point here isn’t to rehearse the long history of dogmatic fights about the atonement. The more interesting point to explore is the idea that our sin has incurred a debt. In his influential book, Sin: a History, Notre Dame OT Professor Gary Anderson notes that the concept of sin as debt became pervasive because, as the Hebrews started to speak Greek and Aramaic as their main language, the Aramaic word for sin also carried commercial connotations. Thus, in the world Jesus inhabited, they understood sin similar to debt. This is how Anderson describes it:
Jesus, on the other hand, speaks in a completely different idiom. In the Gospel of Matthew, he teaches his disciples to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts just as we forgive our debtors.’…Jesus therefore taught his disciples to pray ‘Forgive us our debts’ so that they might avoid a fate as a debt-slave. But apart from an act of divine mercy, one will have to pay for a misdeed with a form of currency generated by physical punishment.[iv]
Because of sin, we have incurred a debt so large that we could never repay it. And, in the ancient world, when someone could not repay a debt, they were punished physically and usually imprisoned. Debtors’ prison was a very real possibility for someone in arrears. This is why the Church started to see Jesus’ actions on the cross as a kind of ransom, not to Satan, but to the massive debt we’ve accumulated to the Father through our sin. In breaking our covenant relationship, we have incurred a massive debt.
Thus Jesus, who was the only one who didn’t owe a debt because he had never sinned, voluntarily took on himself our debt so that we might be restored into a relationship with him. Jesus’ work on the cross was to pay off the very real debt we had accumulated.
This is the context from which the idea of servanthood comes. Jesus commends service rather than self-aggrandizement. He completely upends the idea from the Roman world that servanthood was shameful. Since we are all in the same boat as sinners, servanthood is our collective calling.
Hence, in the Church, we are at our best when we are serving each other. So, if you want to be great, be a servant. If you want to experience Christ-likeness in a real way, serve others. This is a key lesson to take away from Lent.
Find a way to serve others in the parish. There are many opportunities to do so. Contact the parish about current opportunities.
Traditionally, Christians have fasted from meat and heavy foods on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. Consider observing this.
Christians are being persecuted around the world like never before. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are going on in many parts of the globe. Educate yourself on where this is taking place and pray for those who are bearing the brunt of the persecution. You might start your investigation at http://www.persecution.com/.
[i] https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/may/documents/papa-francesco_20130508_uisg.html, Accessed 12-6-2015
[ii] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary, 457.
[iii] Luz, Matthew 8-20, 544.
[iv] Anderson, Sin, 5.