A Progressive Christian reflection on leadership
and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ - Mark 9:33-36
From John’s analysis: Now that they knew he was the Messiah, however, they had another agenda. Which of them were to have prominence in the Messiah’s kingdom? It took a child set in their midst to show them what serving really meant. To be with him in his divinely appointed glory involved humiliation like his. Naturally they didn’t get it.
Do we get it even now?
The Jesus that the Gospel writers portray had some funny ideas about leadership and the order of things. The New Revised Standard translation reads “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The King James version is rendered as “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” The first makes it sound as though, to lead, we have to jump through every hoop that anyone puts in front of us. The second is even worse – apparently, even having the ambition to be a leader is enough to get us kicked to the back of the line.
If that is what is involved, who really wants to be a “Christian”? The principle of it all seems so out of touch with the modern age with our glorification of selfishness and our material definitions of success.
But that’s not it.
Even though it has lots of flaws, including its gender bias (“any man” should be translated as “anyone” for example), in this case I think that the King James version is a better translation. The NRSV is pretty soft. It could almost be read as offering advice to the ambitious. The KJV on the other hand is a lot more direct. It says that it’s the reason we want to “be first” that matters. It says that if we desire to be first, then we are, by definition, disqualified.
But “desire” isn’t quite strong enough either. The Greek word is thelō, which means, among other things, “to delight in”; to “get pleasure from.” In other words, if being “the boss” makes you happy in and of itself, then you’re not suited for the job.
That’s as true today as it was two millennia ago. What happens when the CEO of a global corporation begins to believe that the company exists, not to serve a need, but for his or her personal gain? What happens when a stock market trader begins to find satisfaction, not in doing the best job to support the industry, but in doing whatever gives him or her the greatest “bragging rights”?
What happens when any of us forget the contributions that each and every one of us makes to our families, our communities, or our society?
The author of Mark isn’t saying that we shouldn’t be leaders. Quite the contrary. He’s saying that we need to be leaders who express the understanding of our inseverable agapé relationship with God.
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
The author of Mark must have been thinking of a stereotype of a child when this line was written. But then, since the Bible is mythos, that’s perfectly okay. There are, in reality, plenty of children, just as there are plenty of adults, who are all too ready to consider themselves “first”. Maybe that’s an indication that we’re not making the kind of progress we’d like to believe we are.
But in mythos, a child represents innocence, and trust, and above all the potential to do and be better. If we can be that kind of leader in our personal lives, in our professional situations, and in our relationship with the world around us, we will not only be “servant to all”, we’ll be true to the Message of the Christ that we claim to follow.