The Servant-Leader

Following the Transfiguration, Jesus once again draws a large crowd and heals a possessed boy. It seems Jesus couldn’t go anywhere around Galilee without tripping over a demon.

After this healing, Jesus goes undercover, once again, through the Galilee, apparently undetected. Jesus needed time to continue his trainings and teachings with the disciples. He knew his time was short. He didn’t need any more interruptions.

Without mentioning names, Jesus obliquely says that the Son of Man will be killed and will rise again after three days. This is the second passion prediction Jesus made to the disciples. None of the disciples asked any clarifying questions.

With, perhaps, a few exceptions, everyone has experienced a time when a teacher, professor, or instructor has asked a question and no one raises a hand.

There are likely several reasons for this: someone is sure they have the answer but don’t want to show off or be the only one with a hand up, some may not want to raise a hand and be “the nerd” (our son fits that category), or some may not be sure they know the answer and don’t want to risk being wrong in front of everybody, or some just have no clue what the answer is.

These are true story examples of some class behavior. A student remembers back when this student took drivers ed and the teacher asked if anyone knew what the raised bumps between lanes were in the roads. A guy raised his hand, was called on, and said in all seriousness, “for blind people so they stay in their lane.”

Everyone turned and stared at him in silence. The teacher had this look on his face like, what? Then everyone started laughing and his buddy next to him whacked him in the arm saying, “you’re joking.” But he just turned to his friend shrugging his shoulders. So, the teacher set him straight. He never raised his hand in class again.

Another student related, “I watched one facepalm after my classmate said this, “Ugh! I don’t even know what a verb IS!” This was in an advanced linguistics course for would-be English teachers.

We can only speculate about why the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus any questions. The tongue-tied, no questions asked, disciples, end up at Capernaum, which is on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ headquarters was in Peter’s house.

Jesus knew they were arguing and unless Jesus was hard of hearing, he knew what they were arguing about. It is rare for an argument to be whispered. (Though, I have seen it done. You know, when someone whispers, our hearing gets notched up.) Jesus asked what they were arguing about. Again, none of the disciples wished to raise their hand with an answer to Jesus’ question.

When Mark refers to the disciples, he is referring to the people Jesus is teaching. These were likely some or many more than the twelve apostles. To make the distinction, Mark says that Jesus sat down with the just the twelve.

Jesus said that to be a leader, one must put everyone else ahead of the leader. We usually think of a leader with people following, which is kind of what those words mean. Jesus, though flips that concept on its head.

In order to serve others, the servant-leader must know them. Afterall, how can one serve if the need is unknown. The servant-leader must connect with others on a personal level. Only then can the servant-leader meet the needs and cares of others. These connecting actions create gratitude in the receiver and joyful hearts for the giver and the receivers.

A lot of people would not recognize someone who was a braggart and was often in people’s faces, literally and figuratively as a servant-leader. It would seem to be the opposite persona for Muhammed Ali. The disciples asked who was the greatest. They never met Muhammed Ali.

I remember watching the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The opening ceremonies have entertaining performances, the parade of the athletes, and speeches by Olympic officials and local organizers. The highlight, though, is the lighting of the Olympic flame.

I think a part of the reason for this is that the person who lights the flame is usually the best kept secret in the world. Usually, the first one in the stadium is a world-class runner for the summer games. Even if very well known, that will not be the person lighting the flame. The torch gets passed off several times heightening the speculation of whether or not that will be that person who lights the flame.

The torch reached the top of the stadium and I assumed that Janet Evans, an Olympic swimmer would light the flame. At the last minute, a figure appeared from the shadows and was handed the torch. It was Muhammed Ali, an Olympic gold medalist. The place erupted. Ali held up the torch high in one hand and his other hand was shaking from his Parkinson’s disease. That scene is forever in my mind. (If that wasn’t exactly as it happened – don’t tell me.)

Muhammed Ali was involved with more than thirty organizations, including the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, the NAACP, and the Special Olympics.

“Ali traveled to numerous countries, including Mexico and Morocco, to help out those in need. In 1998, he was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace because of his work in developing nations.” (Muhammad Ali – Quotes, Record & Spouse – Biography)

“Religious tolerance also played a large role in his life. Though he was devoutly Muslim, he regularly met with leaders of other faiths to impart a greater understanding between the religions of the world.

“Ali said to CNN, when asked about 9/11, ‘Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. So, religions all have different names, but they all contain the same truths. I think the people of our religion should be tolerant and understand people believe different things. It’s a shame that this (tolerance) didn’t happen before.’” (Muhammad Ali had a lifelong mission to help those in need (mashable.com))

Just by coincidence, a documentary series about Muhammed Ali, servant-leader, was on PBS. Though a Muslim, Ali reflected what Jesus was teaching the twelve.

Jesus is giving an example of one of the aspects of the realm of God. It is one where gratitude for what God gives us is received in love. This love is then reflected to everyone around.

Jesus makes his point with a child. This is going to sound harsh, but it was the social hierarchy of Jesus’ time. Men were on top. The wealthy on the very top and then the small middle class, and then the masses of the poor. Next were women. After women, were children, regardless of gender. It was a big deal for a child to reach adulthood. The child was no longer at the bottom of society. Some of those traditions and celebrations continue to this day, like bar-mitsvahs.

Jesus puts a child in front of the twelve. This may look to us like a cute moment, but it anything but that. Jesus chose the lowest member of society. In another moment of upending social norms, Jesus declares that anyone who welcomes a child also welcomes Jesus and the one who sent Jesus. In other words, welcoming the least in society is welcoming God.

“A father had the right to punish, sell, pawn off, or even kill his own child.”[1] Our views have improved towards children since then. Yet, I still hear over and over again about children being our future. Maybe, we should appreciate them for who they are now. The disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. Well, the greatest is a child. (Muhammed Ali wasn’t born yet.)

Human beings are tribal. It’s in our DNA from tens of thousands of years before history. We like to hang around with people like us and avoid others. In prehistoric times, we might not know if others from another tribe are going to be peaceful or are arriving to take our food and anything else. It was survival thing.

Jesus wants us to remove those boundary feelings that might well up with a stranger or strangers. Instead of assuming what another wants from us, we are to consider what we might give or at the very least, to make a connection.

What will I do about these things when I leave here? I don’t know. It’s in my DNA to be suspicious. But Jesus points me to a new reality that can erase animosity in the world.


[1] Marty, P. W. (2001). Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (p. 244). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

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