Being A Leader With Dirty Hands

Matthew 20:20-28

For the benefit of those of you who weren't here last Sunday, the text we studied in Matthew 18 described the disciples arguing over who would be greater in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responded definitively, or so He thought, to this argument by telling His disciples that in order to be great they had to "become like children"(18:3). Greatness in the kingdom then, would be contingent on how well the disciples took a humble posture before God.

In Matthew 20, however, we see that the debate over "greatness" has not yet subsided. The disciples are still concerned over who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Did you notice in today's reading their idea of a humble posture? Listen to verse 20, "Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus . . . making a request of Him". The request the mother of James and John made to Jesus was this, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left"(v.21).

Do you see how this discussion has degenerated? The disciples were initially arguing over who would be greater and Jesus tells them to humble themselves as children. So how do James and John respond? They allow their MOTHER to ask for their preferential treatment in the kingdom!

To be fair to James and John though, this request is not as ridiculous as it might appear. Jesus had just promised in 19:28 that the twelve disciples would "sit on the twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel". The mother of Zebedee then, was simply interested in the precedence on these thrones. And having traveled with the group of disciples, she was well aware that Peter and her two sons had become Jesus' closest friends. Sitting on either side of Jesus in the kingdom then, seemed to her like a natural extension of their friendship.
Jesus, however, appears shocked by the request. Unlike the argument over who would be greater, which does not seem to surprise Jesus, this request to sit on the privileged thrones seems to have startled Jesus. He responds to James and John by asking, "You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?"(v.22).

What does Jesus mean by "drink the cup" He is about to "drink"? Well, "cup", in the Old Testament is often a metaphor for suffering. Jesus is asking them, "Are you prepared to suffer in the way I am going to suffer?".

It is hard to miss the obvious connection here. In responding to their question about greatness and privilege, Jesus points to suffering as an inevitability. James and John ask for a privileged position and Jesus asks if they are willing to endure suffering to get there. By pointing to suffering, Jesus gives meaning to a phrase He utilizes earlier, "the last shall be first, and the first last"(19:30; 20:16).

And give credit to James and John--they do not blink at the promise of suffering. "We are able"(v.22), is their response.

James and John are willing to suffer for kingdom privilege and Jesus promises them just that, "My cup you shall drink"(v.23). "You will indeed suffer", Jesus promises. James and John, in fact, did suffer as followers of Jesus Christ. In Acts 12:2 we read that James became one of the earliest to be executed as a follower of Jesus. And while it is unknown whether John was ever executed for his faith, he was imprisoned on the remote island of Patmos never to return.

But even this suffering didn't ensure privileged places in the kingdom, for Jesus warns them that it is not His place to assign, but the Father alone decides this(v.23).

In this passage, perhaps the most predictable response comes in verse 24, "And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers". The other ten disciples are upset and this is not surprising. In chapter 18, we are led to believe that all twelve of the disciples were arguing over who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. After having the argument seemingly quelled by Jesus' response, James and John now have the nerve to bring in their mother to ask for kingdom privileges. No doubt the other ten would be upset.

Jesus finally puts an end to this long debate over greatness by describing what leadership looks like. He begins by describing "the rulers of the Gentiles" --that is to say the non-religious, or secular leaders. Secular rulers draw attention to their authority and "lord it over" others, Jesus reminds them(v.25). Jesus also points out how secular rulers are always utilizing their authority--"exercising" it over those under them.

But here is the key phrase, the turning point, "It is not so among you"(v.26). Secular leaders draw attention to their authority, but Christian ones do not. Secular rulers utilize their authority and they "lord it over" others. Christian leaders do not. Or, at least, they are not supposed to.

Jesus then gives the definitive statement on "greatness" and Christian leadership: "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many"(v.26-28). This is our model for Christian leadership.

But before I continue with an exhortation and application for you, I'd like to share an observation with you. In the limited time I have been here, I have been impressed with the willingness of many of you to serve . Before I gently prod you to be better servants, it is necessary that I encourage you first. Many of you are already good servants. I haven't seen anyone trumpet their status as a session member, board member, or senior member. Instead, what I have seen is a lot of leaders in this church that have a willingness to get their hands dirty.

A few weeks ago, we imagined what the church would look like if we were relentless in forgiving one another. Well, this week I want you to imagine a church full of people who are relentless in serving one another. There is the key--serving one another . Many of us are good at serving the "church"--we do all our chores without complaint, but how are we doing in serving one another?

Begin by looking for those in our church who appear tired. If it was me who was looking tired, I would hope that the session members would examine my schedule and find ways to support me. If the shoe was on the other foot--if one of the session members was exhausted I hope I would have the discernment and the energy to help them out.

We must pay attention to how our fellow members are doing. Does our organist look tired? Then think of a way to help them out. Do any of our Sunday school teachers look burned out? Maybe it is time to give them a break, or at least volunteer our time to support them. Find out who is spearheading various projects--the church newsletter, church dinners, the Bible studies--inquire as to how you might help.

I know I have appreciated the support I have received already for the Bible study at the manse. A few people have taken the initiative to bring the food for fellowship time. This has allowed me to concentrate on preparing the Bible study knowing that the hospitality aspect was being shared.

Now I realize some of you have very busy schedules. Your approach is that you would like to help, you would like to do more, but you just don't have the time. On the one hand, I can genuinely appreciate a busy schedule. On the other hand, I know of at least one individual who has had their house in a state of constant repair and renovation. I say "constant" because, from what I understand, the work is not getting completed. And the work on this person's house is not getting completed because they are devoting so much time to their church. This person happens to be one of our leaders and the PRIMARY way this person leads--from what I have seen and what I have heard from others--this person leads by serving.

This should come as no surprise. Serving leadership is the model Christ gives us. The very idea that God would take on human form should tip us off as to what kind of leader we have in Jesus. And as God Incarnate, Jesus could have existed in the social class of His choosing. So what what did He chose? A king? A landowner? No, he was the son of a carpenter. Jesus would have surely known what it was like to get His hands dirty. He demonstrates that to us when He washes His disciples' feet. He demonstrates this when He volunteers Himself to die an awful death on the cross to pay for our sin.

I honestly have no idea what the work ethic of your previous ministers was like when I say this, but if you were to ask me what motivates a minister to work hard, I would have two answers. Number one, it is due to a reverent fear of God and the example of Jesus Christ. The second motivating factor for a minister to work hard is a hard working, sacrificing congregation.

Hard work is contagious. Unfortunately, so is apathy. When I see how hard certain individuals are working in these two churches, I am motivated to do the same.

I hope and pray we all would be motivated to work hard, and make sacrifices--not just for the church, or the Gospel, but also for each other.

You often hear the phrase, "Not everyone is a leader". Well, we can prove that phrase to be utterly false. No, we can't all be the type of leader that the world requires, but Jesus doesn't define leadership that way. Jesus says that the greatest leader is the one who serves . Surely we are all capable of serving. Surely then, we can all be leaders for the sake of the Gospel.

Let us resolve today to be servant leaders. Look around you. Who could use your support? Help them. Just as Jesus became a servant for the sake of humanity, so we must be servants to each other. May God give us strength. Amen.