I’ve been struggling with a question, an idea, a challenge which was shared during a meeting earlier this past week.
“Is servanthood really a good model for Christian Leadership?”
As an ordained priest within the Anglican Church of Canada I have often been reminded that my life is one defined by ‘service.’ During my time at seminary I gained deep insight into my gifts for ministry through prayerful study of Isaiah’s image of the ‘Suffering Servant.’ As a Chaplain within the Canadian Forces I have embraced the Branch motto – Called to Serve.
So, as you can well imagine, a question challenging the effectiveness of the model of servant ministry took me completely off guard. Though further comments went on to highlight the models of ‘friendship’ and ‘mentoring’ – two very noble models – I still felt my cherished ideas of ‘servant ministry’ were being unfairly treated in some way…but I could think of nothing to say. That was until I read this Sunday gospel reading and was reminded that Jesus’ ministry was itself often marked by moments when his actions and deeds made is clear that he refused to be treated like a servant – like a slave.
Let’s be clear here. ‘Servant’ and ‘Servanthood,’ as they appear in our politically correct versions of the Scriptures are really nothing more than more thinly veiled references to ‘slave’ and ‘slavery.’ Slaves are, by definition, subservient, passive, and less-than-human commodities. Sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? But that’s the whole idea. Slavery is a cultural method of devaluing people so that they do as they are told, when they’re told and think of themselves as a lesser order of being than those whom they serve.
If Jesus is our ultimate model for ministry, especially for those of us in positions of leadership within the church, we must ask ourselves whether this is the example he has set for us.
There is a very popular image of Jesus out there (which I’ve heard called the ‘Florida Jesus’) who appears in gentle, softened colours, long, blonde hair and large doe-like eyes. This image of Jesus seems to be a visual expression of “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” – one of Charles Wesley’s least inspiring compositions. This Florida-Jesus looks like he might cry if you looked at him the wrong way. Is this the Lord of Lords and King of Kings? Is this the model to which we should aspire? I sure as hell hope not.
Let’s get back to our gospel reading.
In order for us to appreciate the full significant of what is going on in today’s gospel reading, we need to remember that Pilate was THE presence of Caesar in Palestine – the wielding all the power and authority of a man who considered himself a god. Pilate was a ruthless military leader and governor who once massacred an entire crowd – men, women and children- when they protested against one of his judgments. It is in front of this man, in his Judgment Hall, surrounded by his soldiers that Jesus is questioned.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks.
Does gentle Jesus, meek and mild, take the stance of a slave before his master? No. Jesus stands before the most powerful man in Palestine and challenges him. Basically, what Jesus asks is, “Is that your question or did someone else put those words in your mouth?” Wow! Jesus does not bow before Pilate, but instead does what he always does when he encounters someone – he teaches, he challenges and he invites him to listen to him.
A slave is subservient, putting the will of others first. Jesus stands on equal footing before Pile, challenging him to talk to him as an equal.
Are we called to be people-pleasers or example-setters? One way is the path to slavery and the other the way of the king.
A slave is passive, always being told what to do and waiting for others to lead the way. Jesus listens with great compassion to all who would engage him (including Pilate), but he is never told what to do. He makes his own decisions and takes the lead.
Are we called to be passive and reactionary or engaging decision-makers? One way is the path to slavery and the other the way of the king.
Slave sees themselves as less that those whom they serve. This attitude is often justified in the church today through a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ sayings about the first being last, the last being first, and the greatest of all being the least and servant of all. Jesus’ kingdom – the great hope which we celebrate Sunday – doesn’t just flip everyone’s lives and positions in society upside down. Jesus is actually the great level-er. When the scriptures speak of mountains being brought low and valleys lifted up we are invited to see a great plain – an image of the revelation that we are all on the same level in the eyes of God. Sure the powerful will be brought low and the lowly lifted up…but we all meet in the same place. No one is worth less or more than any other person. The sad reality in our world is that some do take this misinterpretation very seriously. There are countless numbers of people who suffer abuse and degradation and who allow others to push them around and use them because they believe that this is what God demands of them.
Jesus’ ministry is filled with moments when he through word and deed contradicts this idea. He touches lepers, he speaks with women, he eats with tax collectors and in today’s gospel he looks Pilate in the eye and holds his ground. He lifted up the lowly and treated with respect and brought down Pilate to the level of a carpenter’s son.
Are we more or less worthy than the person sitting next to us? Or are we a people who work towards the building of a kingdom where each person in valued as an equal child of God? One way is the path to slavery and the other the way of the king.
Let me go back to the idea of ‘servanthood’ one more time, though, because I still feel there is a place for it; namely, in our relationship with God.
The only person to whom we are called to be slaves is God. When we surrender our lives to the God who loved us into being and walks with us though the journey of life, we need not be slaves to anyone or anything anymore. We simply claim our place as children of the Most High, fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God. Amen.