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(Part 24)


August 20, 2011
Today’s reading: Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus says, “you have but one master, the Messiah.” (Mt 23:10b). We who are leaders in community or in the Church are all servants of the one Master, Jesus. Thus we understand our calling to be that of servant leaders. Our scripture reading today has many lessons regarding servant leadership.

During Jesus time, leaders were exalted, while servants were of the lowest standing. The leaders of society at the time, the scribes and Pharisees, were often very conscious of their standing and acted in order to earn praise. “All their works are performed to be seen.” (Mt 23:5a).

  • “They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” (Mt 23:5b). Phylacteries were small boxes containing verses of scripture, to be worn on the left forearm and the forehead. Tassels were on the corners of one’s garment as a reminder to keep the commandments. So their making these larger was to make more noticeable the supposed evidences of piety.
  • “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues.” (Mt 23:6). They were there to be seen and admired.
  • “They love .... greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’” (Mt 23:7). “Rabbi” means literally “my great one.” Accepting the greeting gave them a feeling of superiority and pride.

Now Jesus told them pointedly, “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’” (Mt 23:8a). Though servant leaders do teach, the ultimate teacher is Jesus. Whatever knowledge or wisdom we have comes from God. Whatever position of teaching authority we have is a delegation by God. Even as we are placed in such position of leadership and authority, we are all the same in being children of God and disciples of Jesus. “You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Mt 23:8b).

Jesus also says, “Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah.” (Mt 23:10). While we as leaders may have titles (which may be necessary to distinguish roles, for good order in community), we are to know that we are all servants of the one Master. Though we pastor people, it is a task delegated by the one Chief Shepherd, and all the people, including the leaders, are His sheep, totally dependent for their well-being upon God.

Then Jesus in one brief sentence resolves the oxymoron that is “servant leadership.” “The greatest among you must be your servant.” (Mt 23:11). Jesus does not deny the reality that some are called to leadership and as such will be “great,” that is, they will have authority, they will be submitted to by their subordinates, they will be acclaimed for their good leadership, they will be given places of honor in gatherings, and so on. But they are afforded all those, in order that they might serve, and serve more effectively. To serve as a leader requires authority and the corresponding submission of people. To be acclaimed and esteemed inspires more people to follow those who lead properly.

Now such acclaim can go to one’s head, especially as we all struggle against the sinful flesh, prodded by the crafty enemy. Knowing the true meaning of leadership to be servanthood is the antidote. But it is so easy to lose one’s way, so Jesus adds a stern warning. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:12).

That seems easy enough to understand. We are to realize our nothingness apart from God’s grace and strength. If we forget that, God will remind us by cutting us down to size. This is to keep us from going deeper into the sin of pride. It is a loving act when God does that to us. Then, when we have been humbled, God can again use us. And if we have truly learned the lesson, then God can allow us to be exalted in our service.

Now Jesus said this teaching (Mt 23:12) a number of times in different situations. We can learn more as we look at those.

Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14a). We are not to be self-righteous in our actions, especially when we go to pray, for in the presence of God we are but dirty rags. We are to recognize our sinfulness, and that only by the grace of God are we able to come before Him in worship. We do not measure our piety by the wretched condition of others, but by the holiness of God. God is pleased with those who have a lowly servant’s heart. Thus, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14b).

Jesus told the parable of the invited guests and hosts (Lk 14:7-10). We are not to seek places of honor, but we are to take the lowest place. We know that we are anointed as leaders simply by the grace of God, not because of our own merit or qualification. We are always aware how far short we fall of the holiness of God and the accomplishment of His divine work. It is up to God to exalt us if that is needed in our service. But even if we are deserving of acclaim or recognition, when it does not happen, we still truly rejoice, simply for the privilege of serving God and His people. Thus, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11).

Now with servant leadership, we look not only at the proper posture of leaders but also at the proper posture of those who are led.

Servant leaders are not perfect. In fact, a great deal of growth in spiritual maturity still needs to happen. They are still sinful and weak. But if they are genuinely appointed by God, then they are His instruments and His servants. They stand in His place. They represent Him. They do His work.

How are people to respond to servant leaders who act more as lofty leaders than lowly servants? How do they respond to those who “preach but they do not practice” (Mt 23:3b)? Jesus makes it clear, “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” (Mt 23:3a). In other words, go and follow the good teachings of bad teachers.

This is where subordinates sometimes fail. They look at their leader, sees someone who makes mistakes or shows weakness in certain aspects, and they decide to no longer obey or heed whatever he is teaching. He may be teaching perfectly orthodox Christian living, but they can only see the teacher. Or subordinates might consider themselves more intelligent, more experienced, better versed in scripture, even holier, and so cannot submit to a lesser leader. Beware! You might become the Pharisee in relation to the tax collector. You may be exalting and not humbling yourself. You may miss out on the words and works of God who uses any instrument, and certainly weak and imperfect ones.

The other response of subordinates is on the other extreme. They exalt their leaders. Because he is a good preacher, or a great healer, or a magnificent Bible scholar, or is exemplary in many ways, his subordinates begin to look on him as a demigod. They follow everything he says blindly. They fall over themselves trying to kiss his hand. When in conflict with another leader, they immediately line up with him, without even looking at the situation and seeking the truth. They consider themselves his disciples rather than the Lord’s.

Now it is right and good to respect and honor exemplary leaders, to give them places of honor, to speak highly of them, and so on. But there are dangers when done in extremes. First, we make it harder for the servant leader to remain humble. But second and more importantly, we might be giving to him what is due to God. Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” (Mt 23:9). Everything that we are as servant leaders is due to God. If we are called upon and given the great privilege to serve God’s people, we are caring for His children, not ours.

There are practical implications of all the above, for both servant leaders and their subordinates. Let me cite just some of them.

  • In community assemblies, unlike in secular fora, we do not have seats of honor at the front facing the people.
  • We prefer to call our leaders not “heads” but “servants.”
  • We do not have pictures of our leaders plastered prominently on offices, magazines, tarps, banners, etc.
  • We do not give, and certainly should not orchestrate, standing ovations for talks or presentations, unless such have truly been extremely outstanding (even then, appreciative applause is sufficient).
  • Leaders queue with others for meals or other things, and do not have to be accorded priority.
  • We have no need to put on our letterhead or masthead the fact that we are recognized by the Church hierarchy. This touts superiority over other Church groups. It is widening the phylactery and lengthening the tassel.
  • We certainly should not claim we are anointed, as a way of asserting authority and commanding submission. The expression of being anointed comes from others who see that anointing, not from us as a self-serving statement.
  • We do not wear insignia or regalia indicating rank.
  • We do not have our name plastered as the name of the ministry, rather than or more prominent than the name of Christ.
  • We do not look to secular award or citations. If these are accepted when given, it should be only for the purpose of giving glory to God and advancing His divine work.
  • We greet each other as brother or sister, and never in secular terms such as “Sir.”

In Christ we live a life of contradiction. The first is last, the greatest is the least, and whoever exalts himself will be humbled while whoever humbles himself will be exalted. As servant leaders, we go forth in the weakness and lowliness of a servant, but are assured that we take on the very strength and glory that comes from God.

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