Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to Jesus, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him 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.” (Matthew 20:20-28)
Jewish mothers have a legendary reputation of doing everything possible to promote their sons’ careers. The mother of the apostles James and John certainly fits the description (at least by Matthew’s accounting) as she tries to secure the best positions possible for her sons in Jesus’ Kingdom. Jesus shows no sign of exasperation with her or her sons for not understanding the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. However, He does point out that His Kingdom is not like the worldly kingdoms for it has its own unique values which are not based in dominating or ruling over others. Greatness in Christ’s Kingdom consists not in lording over others but in serving them. Jesus showed this by His own example, challenging the assumptions of His chosen apostles about what it is to live in God’s Kingdom. Leadership in the Church has to do with serving others, not ruling over others – no masters or despots in Christ’s Kingdom.
St Jerome, reflecting Christ’s teachings, comments on the kind of person who might be chosen to lead other Christians. It is worthy noting that in Jerome’s thought, one doesn’t choose for oneself to be a Christian leader. Rather, accepting Christ’s teachings on humility, it is the community which chooses who they want in a position of leadership. It is an honor given by one’s fellow Christians, not something one claims for oneself (see Hebrews 5:1-5). And, it is no easy task to lead as Christ taught by example and by being a servant. Leadership in Christianity is martyrdom, imitating the Lord Jesus in accepting the way of the cross. Spiritually, one should be realistic enough to know one may not be up for the job. The community may choose its leader because it perceives the one chosen to be truthful and wise. It is exactly the truthful, wise person who is humble enough to know his/her own limits, foibles, sins, faults, weaknesses. St Jerome says:
The person who has been chosen as leader will speak. And as the people had desired to have him as prince whom they see to be richer than themselves, so the one who has been chosen, reflecting on his poverty and weakness, bears witness that he is unworthy of the honor offered him and cannot heal vices; that is to say, he who can hardly attend to his own needs cannot cure the sick, give food to the hungry and clothe the naked. . . .
[If we are truthful to ourselves, we won’t agree immediately to become a Christian leader, for we have to understand exactly what Christian leadership demands of anyone – a virtuous life, humility, and a recognition of one’s own limits and especially a willingness to deny the self and take up one’s cross. It means placing ourselves in service to all others, not having them serve us and our wants.]
Therefore let us not concur immediately in the judgment of the multitude, but when we have been chosen to lead we shall know our true worth and shall be humbled under the mighty hand of God [see 1 Peter 5:6], for God, who resists the proud, gives grace to the humble [see James 4:6]. How many there are who promise others food and clothing and do not have bread and clothing because they themselves are hungry and naked and do not have spiritual food and do not keep Christ’s tunic whole! Full of wounds, they boast that they are healers. They do not observe what Moses says: ‘Send someone else‘ [Exodus 4:13]. Nor do they keep the other commandment: ‘Do not seek to become a judge, lest perhaps you be unable to remove iniquities‘ [Sirach 7:6]. Jesus alone heals all sicknesses and infirmities. About him it stands written: ‘He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds‘ [Psalm 147: 3]. (Jerome, BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, p 35)
The only way to be a Christian leader is to fully submit oneself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He is the only Lord in the Church. All the members are supposed to be brothers and sisters who chose in love to serve one another and to deny themselves. While both clericalism and hierarchialism eventually found their way into the Church, a spirit of brotherhood of all believers (as well as a priesthood of all believers) still is at the heart of Christ’s teaching about how we are to live as citizens of His Kingdom.
[Just for the sake of balance and also for further meditation on the topic of Christian leadership, despite the sense that Christian leadership is a calling from others in the community, St Paul did also say: “The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). And St James offers his own warning of those who aspire to a position in the church of teaching others: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).]