You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and the great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Likewise the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20: 25-8
The context of Jesus’ teaching on leadership in today’s gospel is the ambition and envy of the disciples. It is not difficult to identify with them all, both the ambition of James and John, as expressed by their mother, to be seen as those closest to Jesus, and the resentment of the other disciples at their request for those places which they themselves also desire. From our earliest experiences in life of when we are chosen (or not chosen) for a team, or elected to a school office, or given a gift from our grandparents, we are always determining our value and significance in terms of our position vis-à-vis the others. To this day it is humbling to realize how readily my ego gets bruised when I am unrecognized or overlooked. Ultimately our driving ambition is sourced by our apparently infinite neediness, and the striking part is that as long as we continue to attempt to feed this need the more insatiable it becomes. The truth of the matter is that our wounded egos will never heal through recognition from and submission of others.
Matthew’s description of the leadership that is characteristic of the gentiles (and in fact of all human beings) is that of domination. In this sense, leadership is to bend others to one’s will, making them servants of one’s projects and followers of one’s direction. It is a capacity to manipulate and use others in service of one’s goal. This is leadership from the level of the unconscious. It is what we do when our insatiable need to “be somebody” in the eyes of others controls our actions.
Jesus, however, suggests a possibility of leadership that springs not from our unconscious and infantile needs but from our transcendent human possibilities. We are, says Jesus, most truly and distinctively human when we lead by becoming a “slave” to the unique possibilities inherent in the other. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” Jesus teaches that gospel leadership is to relate to the other as a servant of what they could be. Adrian van Kaam, in speaking of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman as related in John’s gospel, says that in this encounter Jesus is “faithful to what she [the Woman] is called to be”.
The difficult truth that Jesus calls us to realize is that, in truth, we ourselves shall only experience the fulfillment of that insatiable need to “be someone” when we serve the unfolding of the unique call in another. To learn this truth in practice, however, requires some hard work. For the first step is for us to grow in awareness of all the subtle and often difficult to recognize ways in which our needs lead us to attempt to seduce and manipulate others. At every turn and with infinite creativity we “operate” in such a way as to gain the attention, recognition, and power that we mistakenly believe will fulfill us. The disciplines of Lent are an opportunity for us to begin to recognize how we can be a danger to the deeper call of others when we act out of the conviction that we know what is good for them. The moment of such an awareness we may become a space of creative repentance. We may experience a pause in our urge to dominate that allows for us to receive the call to service – not to our own agenda or project but to the original unfolding of the life of the other.
. . . the most authentic influences enable us to discover ourselves. Far from creating in us the impression of enslavement to another being, or inviting us to imitate the other, they deliver us suddenly from all constraints and make us aware of our authentic originality. . . .
True influence is that of pure presence; it has metaphysical overtones; it is the discovery of one’s own being through contact with another being.
Louis Lavelle, The Dilemma of Narcissus, p. 137