It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:26-28 (NRSVUE)
It is said that the three rules of real estate are, “Location, location, location.” The same might be said about reading the Bible. Given that we have four different (often very different) Gospels, our understanding of Biblical passages is greatly enriched by considering the “location” (i.e., context) of a passage as important in our interpretive toolbox. The importance of context is underscored in this instance by the fact that the lectionary includes with this passage the five verses that precede it. But what really clarifies the passage are the questions raised by the passage’s placement/context in the 20th chapter of Matthew and the precursor to Matthew’s parable that we find in the 10th chapter of Mark.
We begin with the understanding that Matthew and Mark wrote almost a generation apart in time, each dealing with different issues and different audiences. Scholars generally recognize Mark’s Gospel as the earlier telling of Jesus’s ministry, written some 35 years after the crucifixion and providing source material for Matthew’s writing some 20 years later.
We must remember, too, that our context reading the story is very different from that of the disciples living the history. We know what’s going to happen as they head toward Jerusalem in the days leading up to Palm Sunday. They do not. Jesus tries to tell them (and not for the first time) how he will be turned over to the Romans, flogged, mocked, and crucified and then raised. They remain oblivious.
These rough-hewn would-be revolutionaries following a charismatic leader are completely absorbed in themselves, jockeying for position when two of them in Mark’s story ask if, when Jesus comes into his kingdom, they can sit at Jesus’s left and right. In Matthew’s version the two come with their mother and not they, but she asks on their behalf! This leads to such bickering among the twelve that Jesus responds with his leader/servant model of which he is the exemplar, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We can gain much from this two-thousand year-old story, though we are not its primary, or even its secondary, audience. Jesus has pulled the disciples aside, out of the crowd. He expects them to be leaders, but first they need to be followers. They’re not paying attention. He berates them, and to get their attention, insults them with a comparison to the hated Gentiles/Romans. We know, as they will soon learn, that Peter, the stand-in for them all, will get a well-earned comeuppance when the cock crows on Friday morn.
- Of the two versions of this episode, I find Mark’s both more interesting and more pointed. He is never slow in portraying the disciples’ ego-centric selves and obtuseness in failing to pick up on Jesus’s message. Matthew, on the other hand, is consistently more tender of the disciples’ reputations. In this case he identifies the source of the contretemps not with the sons of Zebedee, but with their mother, repeating a pattern of woman-blaming that goes back to the first chapters of Genesis.
- One wonders about Mark’s and Matthew’s audiences. What kind of leadership issues were first-century Christians facing that both Gospel writers felt the need to include this little parable in their telling? Even if it literally happened, its inclusion suggests that even after the resurrection Jesus’s followers remained stubbornly human, squabbling over status issues and who was in charge. Sounds awfully twenty-first-century-ish.
- We all face changes and leadership issues in the next couple of years as we go about selecting both political and church leaders. In doing so each of us will be switching repeatedly between leadership roles (formal and/or informal) and follower roles. We are reminded here not only of the need to select leaders who will truly be servants, but also the need to be followers who by our response allow leader/servants to be effective. They can’t do it without us.
Lord, we pray that your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us the strength and insight to work to that end, looking in ourselves and others to find the true humility to lead, to serve, to follow. Amen.