“… [A]nyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants 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 as a ransom for many.”
I wonder how many of you have heard this gospel passage misread at Mass: “…came not to serve but to be served…”?
It is all too easy to do, after all, the line being something of a tongue-twister. That at least is the generous way of reading it. Sometimes, however, a less generous interpretation might be that it constitutes a Freudian slip – a misstatement that, the great Austrian psychoanalyst would say, expresses what the speaker truly feels subconsciously.
After all, it is fashionable and politically-correct for every real or would-be leader to proclaim himself or herself a ‘servant leader’. Just as it is for someone to say in their CV or job application that they are ‘passionate about’ whatever work it is they are seeking. But how many of us really believe that when we make such a claim?
You may call me a cynic for this, but I suspect many of us have experienced the opposite both among leaders and among applicants who have got the job. Service and passion becomes the means to get things we want, but do not always translate into doing the job itself.
The wider reading for today gives us the context of Jesus’ saying: disciples jockeying for power, having perhaps imagined that Jesus was about to stage a coup and take-over Israel. Perhaps the sons of Zebedee, intoxicated with the (false) smell of power, were already imagining the cushy jobs that would come with the revolution.
What of the other disciples, angry at them for their presumption? It might well be that, rather than understanding Jesus’ real agenda better, they were simply afraid that our lads had beaten them to the feeding trough.
Whatever the case, they all missed the point. And Jesus’ meditation on servant leadership is the ultimate bucket of cold water on the idea of power for gain. Real leaders serve, Jesus tells them – and us. Real service, expressed in words. This is no pious platitude or words on a puffed-up CV, but the brute fact of being part of Jesus’ revolution – the reign of God.
There is also the cost of servant leadership: suffering. It’s not for no reason that Jesus calls the servant leader a slave. The word slave with all its connotations – unfree, poor conditions of living, always at one’s owner’s beck and call – is what servant leadership entails.
So perhaps, if one is not serious about service, not serious about putting in the hard graft, it is better to abandon the term servant leadership. Embrace the Freudian slip openly, so that others will not be fooled by empty words and false promises.