29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 18th October 2015

"Servant Leadership"

Scripture Reading – Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus. ‘Master,’ they said to him ‘we want you to do us a favour.’ He said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ ‘You do not know what you are asking’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I must be baptised?’ They replied, ‘We can.’ Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I must drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I must be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’

When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’


“Servant Leadership”

by Fr Martin Loftus SDB

The form of leadership that Jesus prefers is: servant leadership – the leadership of a servant! I heard a lovely story of servant leadership, and it was about king Oscar II, who was the king of Sweden at the turn of the century. He enjoyed visiting schools and talking informally with the children. Calling on a village-school one day, the king asked the children to name the greatest kings of Sweden. They named three: Gustavus Vasa; Gustavus Adolphus; and Charles xii.!! The teacher was embarrassed, and leaned over and whispered into a little boys ear: “say: king Oscar!” The little boy shouted out: “and king Oscar!” “really?” Said the king, “and what has king Oscar done that is so remarkable?” “I – I – I don’t know!” Stammered the little boy. “that’s all right, my boy,” said the king, “neither do i!” Children have a way of expressing their own truths, without the type of language which disguises our adult thinking.

In Matthew’s version of today’s gospel, Jesus brings the child to centre-stage, and instructs his disciples: “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children, in my name, welcomes me!” Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to become like children; he asks his disciples to welcome them. Were the disciples having a problem about welcoming ‘littleness’?? They were, you know!! For what were they arguing about on the road?? It was about which of them was the greatest! Amazingly, the disciples are not one bit interested in who will serve – but who will be the greatest!! They cannot comprehend the idea of helplessness, of humble service, of a vulnerability in Jesus that will expose him to those who lie in wait!

And in today’s gospel, you have James and john asking Jesus if they could sit on his right and left hand, when he makes it big!! Pointedly, Jesus replies, that in his kingdom, it is not about sitting. It’s about standing! Can you? Will you? Stand by me? Stand for me? Stand for what I am all about? For Jesus is about servant-leadership, which is the opposite of what we usually experience around us. For we usually experience a leadership that is full of power and greed. They are far, far from Jesus teaching: “whoever wishes to be great among you, will be your servant, the servant of all!” That radical teaching of Jesus is a deep spirituality to live by: “the more power I have, the more respect I must show; the more service I must give; the more aware of the ‘small people’ in life I must be!” Last year , a test was given to a new class of students in their first year, in the college of surgeons in Dublin. Most of the students did well in the test, until they came to the last question, which they all left blank.

The question was: “What is the first name of the lady who cleans this area of the college every morning?” The students thought the question was a joke, until they found out that 10 marks had been allocated to the question. When they protested, the professor said: “in your careers, you will meet many people. All of them are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you can do is smile, and say “hello”! Servant leaders notice the small people of this world.

And that is a picture of pope Francis, as he speaks out against global corruption, and speaks up for the refugees and the homeless!! And it is just like Jesus. For he notices the child; he notices the sinful woman; he notices the small man up a tree; he notices the beggar and the cripple; he notices the sinner; he notices the bereaved; he notices the stray – and the lost. And he notices you, and he notices me. We are significant and important to him. And he says: “come to me! Come to me all you who labour, and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. For I am gentle and humble of heart, and I will give rest for your souls!! ”


Today’s gospel incident does not leave us with a good impression of those first disciples, even though we admire them a lot, since they accompanied Jesus during his life on earth. Mark describes two of them as being concerned with getting the best places, and the others, indignant with these two because they dared to ask. However, we can relate to these men who followed Jesus in the hope of gaining some personal advantage after all their efforts, and who nourished their fidelity towards their Master in the hope of some greater recompense from him in return. We can identify with them because, deep down, we see ourselves behaving in the same way. They are just like us! And the more we resemble them, the more relevant we will find the teaching of Jesus in today’s gospel passage.


I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

This third prediction of the passion (Mk 10, 32-34) is the most detailed of the three. It reads almost like an advance copy of the account of the passion that comes immediately afterwards. The prediction is in the form of an instruction on the theme of the forthcoming passion (Mk 10, 38-39.45).

The episode is clearly in two parts:  First of all, Jesus is approached, by the sons of Zebedee who are looking for places of honour (Mk 10, 35-40). Then there is the reaction of the others. Jesus responds by declaring that service of all is the norm of life in the Kingdom. To the ambitious brothers, Jesus offers the cross. To the jealous disciples he proposes fraternal service.

The sons of Zebedee are brothers, sharing the same ambition and the same lack of sensitivity. Mark reveals this in their lively dialogue with Jesus. Jesus responds to their repeated request (Mk 10, 35.37) with a question (Mk 10, 36.38).  He does not refuse their request.  He tells them that they do not really know what it is they are looking for, and he asks them do they really deserve it. Jesus refers to the Chalice and to Baptism, without telling them if they are going to get what they asked for, which was to sit beside him in the places of honour (Mk 10, 37.40). Instead, he foretells that their destiny will be the same as his own (Mk 10, 39). They will not get what they wanted, but they will have the good fortune to share in the destiny of Jesus.

As he often does in his gospel, Mark reveals here the great distance that there is between Jesus’ plan and the plans of his followers. The disciple has to decide whether he wants to follow Jesus, even if it means abandoning his own ambitions. This episode shows that it is possible to follow Jesus on his journey towards death while still dreaming of personal triumph, even ahead of one’s companions on the journey. Jesus’ previous instruction (Mk 9, 30-32) was not enough and Jesus had to try again to win them over to share his fate. The disciples who follow him will not share privilege or power, but a baptism of blood.

We can detect in this account some of the problems of the early Christian community. There is first of all the request for security in the ministry with Jesus (Mk 10, 35.37.38a.40), and then the promise of the chalice and baptism which implies the death of the two disciples who follow Jesus in the hope of gaining honours (Mk 10, 38b-39; cf Acts 12,2; Jn 21,23).  At the time of the early Christian community, the two brothers who once dared to ask for glory alongside Jesus had already died, following the death of Jesus. The triumph they wished for was won in martyrdom. Mark reminds his readers that the destiny of those who follow Jesus is no better than, and no different from, the destiny of Jesus.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

After he had predicted yet again his own bloody end, Jesus had to listen to two of his disciples looking for privileges. It is hard to imagine greater insensitivity. While the Master was thinking of giving his life, his followers continued to look for favours. The indignation of the other disciples is understandable. They were annoyed, however, not because the two failed to understand their Master, but because they looked for privileges only for themselves. Jesus reacted in a different manner. To the two who sought a privileged place, he foretold a death like his own – this will be their privilege. To the others who were indignant, he proposed service to their brothers as the better way for a disciple. We should see ourselves in these disciples – some of us looking for honour and glory, others feeling betrayed by the first two, simply because they dared to hope for more from Jesus. The thing they had in common was the pettiness of their ambition. We should not blame those first disciples. We know now, after the death of Jesus, that it is not possible to follow him unless we accept our own cross.  But like the sons of Zebedee, we maintain a secret desire to obtain more readily from Jesus whatever we ask for, because we are among the few who have been following him closely for a long time. How could he refuse us the privilege of sitting next to him, given that we have journeyed so much of the road with him? And, like the rest of the disciples, would we not also be annoyed with someone who sought an exclusive favour, the very thing we have been hoping for in silence? What advantage is it for us to be his disciples, if we gain only the same reward as everybody else?

If we can see something of ourselves in the attitude of those first disciples of Jesus, the reaction of Jesus and the words he spoke should constitute for us today a serious challenge. They should also be an occasion to ask ourselves, in the intimacy of our conscience, and at the same time in the presence of God, about our own motives for becoming disciples of Jesus.

It is perfectly natural that anyone who, like the sons of Zebedee, has left home and inheritance, father and family members, friends and work, to follow Jesus should expect something better in return. Nobody wants to give up everything for nothing. And it is quite understandable that they should express this to the Master in a moment of sincerity. They wanted some assurance around their future. They did not want to run the risk of following Jesus and getting nothing in return. They dared to ask him a favour because they had already made the offering of their lives and shown their enthusiasm in following him. We should bear in mind too that they were not asking for anything extraordinary. They had been with him all the time, and did not want to leave him, either now in this life, or especially, in the future in heaven. Unlike the other disciples, Jesus was not offended by their request but, interestingly, he reproached them because they did not understand what they were asking for. Anyone who wants to be close to him in heaven, must be able to drink the same chalice while on earth, and receive the same baptism.  A wish to reign one day close to Jesus implies a willingness to share his life and his death. What matters is not the fact of having been with Jesus, but the willingness to live and especially to die as he did, giving one’s life for others. It really is true that those two disciples did not know what they were asking for. And it is true also that we do not know what we want from Jesus when we come to him asking for miracles, asking for special treatment, desiring honours or merely hoping for good fortune, just because we have been faithful to him up to now.  Our fidelity has been tested many times and often found lacking. Our efforts to follow closely in his footsteps and in the light of his word, do not entitle us to a better place nor do they guarantee that we will be with him in heaven. Only if we have courage to give our lives as he did, and if we have the same objective, only then will we have the same destiny and then we will sit by his side forever. A share in the triumph of Jesus is not given to those who ask for it, but to those who do not refuse to share his apparent failure.

We have to admit that we too, like the sons of Zebedee, believe we have a certain right to ask God for special treatment. We often come to him with the hope of obtaining higher honours than the others, just because we have greater ambition – and greater insensitivity – than others. Jesus does not grant favours to people who are not willing to risk everything for him. God the Father does not guarantee eternal life to people who are not willing to sacrifice their own life, which they are going to lose in any case, for the sake of others. We ought to think a bit more before we make our requests to God in prayer. Above all, we should not complain that we have received nothing from God despite all the things we ask him for. If he gives the impression that he is not listening to us, or if he is slow in responding, if he does not give us all we ask for, every time we ask, is it not because we are not always mindful of his will, that we do not always obey his law and his wishes? Anyone who, like the sons of Zebedee, asks for favours, not knowing that he must give his life in return, does not know what he is asking for. But someone who does not ask God for anything special, but offers his whole life to God as Jesus did, can be sure that one day he will obtain all that he now desires.

The other disciples had shared with the sons of Zebedee the trials of discipleship. It is not surprising that they were indignant at the request of their two companions. Asking for special places, and hoping for greater honours from Jesus, meant denying similar honours to the others. This is not how a genuine friend should act.

Nevertheless, Jesus did not respond to the complaints of the other disciples. Just because they had not dared to ask, did not make them any better than the first two. Moreover, their anger meant they were not completely in the right. Disciples of Jesus should not seek the first place, nor should they get angry or upset when they do not receive it.  Followers of the one who came only to serve must not be confused with people who are ambitious for power. Anyone who learns from the One who came to give his life for others, should not expect to get better treatment than others. A Christian who is ambitious for the first place and the highest privilege and honour must learn to seek the lowest place.  He must be available to all and become the servant of those who need his help. And all this without ulterior motive, with no benefit to himself except that of being like Christ who came to serve and to give his life for all. We ought to take seriously the lesson Jesus gave to his best disciples. If we want to follow Jesus, we should seek to follow him, not for what he does for us, nor for the benefits we hope to gain from him. We should not seek to gain any advantage from a life of faith, nor from our daily efforts to be faithful. It would be of no value in the eyes of the God we serve, nor of the Jesus we follow, if we did so only in the hope that our desires will be met and our needs satisfied. We need to ask ourselves today what we hope for from Jesus and how much we ask from him. We should examine our motives. Is it only our desire for success and honour in life that brings us to Jesus? Could it be that Jesus disappoints us simply because the things we ask of him are not what he wants to give us? By reminding us of the unusual request of those two brothers and the angry reaction of the others, the gospel is giving us a warning. Anyone who wants to stay close to Jesus should not hope for extraordinary favours or instant success. The Christian can expect only what his Master has already done, which was to offer his life for others. The hallmark of the authentic Christian is personal sacrifice, not triumph – disinterested service, not a higher place on the social ladder. The authentic follower of Jesus is only the one who follows him to the end.


Almighty, ever-living God,
make us ever obey you willingly and promptly.
Teach us how to serve you
with sincere and upright hearts
in every sphere of life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.





Music used in the reflection: “I Trusted You” by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)