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Jesus on leadership

By Charles Qualls

Let me ask you, who in your life can get you to do things you might not ordinarily do? Who can move you from one position you thought you were ideologically or philosophically settled in, to another you hadn’t yet considered? Who helps you to see answers that were already at work within you, but alone you hadn’t pulled them to the surface just yet? Who seems to get you to change things that, left to yourself, you would never have changed? Who do you respect so much, because of who they have demonstrated that they are, that you will follow them? Mostly because you trust them.

That’s leadership. This week’s Scripture text in Matthew 20: 20-28 was about leadership from Jesus’ perspective. It all starts with the fact that just before this episode, Jesus had for a third time now in Matthew foretold his own arrest and death. Here in our story, something odd happened. I don’t want to make a villain out of the mother here. She loved her sons and apparently loved Jesus enough to follow him around with her boys.

We don’t know what didn’t get recorded here in the text. But all we can do is go by what we see. The lack of empathy is stunning. “Hey everybody, I’m about to hand myself over to be arrested. They’re going to beat and torture me. I will die.” To which the next reply we hear is, “Say, Jesus … since you’re about to come into your Kingdom and everything, how about one of my boys is on your left and the other one is on your right, then?” I don’t know why she did that. It’s awkward.

It could just be a bad moment. Who among us wants to be judged by our worst moment or decision? What it appears to be is a very human, political jockeying for position and maybe even power. One of the things we ought to look for in our leaders is an awareness of the moment, the setting and the people. Ineffective leaders are tone-deaf, unaware and may even lack basic empathy. Good leaders are in touch. They understand what’s going on around them, and they know their own people realistically.

Jesus tried to dissuade them. “Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” If you want to be sure what an egregious misstep this mother and her sons had made, you only need to look at how angry the other 10 disciples got. That also is disturbing. I do know that next, Jesus was exemplary in saying some things about leadership, and about leaders, which are vital.

On balance, our Lord modeled for us a willingness to deal with what is, versus blindly pressing on for what he might like for things to be. Leadership looks like someone who speaks truthfully to the moment and to people about the moment. Now in the story, he schooled them in “tyrannical leadership” versus the more difficult path of compassionate “partnering leadership.” About the tyrannical patterns, he said to them “It isn’t going to be that way in my kingdom.” That’s what leadership looks like.

Jesus showed us a willingness to set differences aside for a season when there was another who appeared to bring the right stuff to the table for the larger cause. He showed an ability to look out for others, and to bring others with him rather than just grabbing what he could for himself. A deep and abiding sense of care for the larger picture. He saw the larger mission or need as primary. He also demonstrated that sometimes a leader or leaders may even have to protect the organization from forces that simply aren’t coming from the right place. Whether outsiders, or even insiders, the organization may need to be protected from those whose vision, motivation or method aren’t the best fit.

Jesus did these things time and again along the way. He wouldn’t let the movement, nor its unique needs of good timing, get hijacked by selfish ambition and political distraction. The fact is, James and John were important to him. He had work for them to do after this, and even after he was gone. But their irrepressible mother jumped the gun, and it gave Jesus this memorable chance to set straight what leadership should look like in his kingdom. Maybe even in ours.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is pastor of Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.