Matthew 23:1-12

Servants and Leaders

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Even when the job market is tight, there remain plenty of openings throughout society for one certain type of worker. Many of the positions for which this worker qualifies are paid ones, and in some cases the pay is good. Still other positions of this kind are meant for volunteers. Who is this worker who remains always in demand, the sort of whom we never have enough?

Robert Greenleaf, who directed management research for AT&T, coined the modern name for workers of this kind. He called them “servant leaders.” He wrote and spoke often of “the servant as leader.”

Greenleaf recognized an emerging moral principle that has become increasingly obvious in the years since his death in 1990. He saw that the only authority deserving allegiance is the one where the servant status of the leader is apparent. [Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Paulist Press, 1977), p. 10.]

As Greenleaf knew, “the servant as leader” dates back to the Bible, and appears above all in the example and teaching of Jesus. In today’s Gospel, we have an extended warning from Jesus about those who purport to be leaders, yet fail to be servants.

Jesus criticizes certain scribes and Pharisees, religious figures who manifestly fail to practice what they preach. He paints an unforgettable portrait of their habitual transgressions. It’s easy for us to cheer Jesus on as he does so. After all, not one of us here is an actual Pharisee or scribe. Whatever our shortcomings, they have nothing to do with the wearing of prayer shawls with fringes long enough to make people think we’re holy.

Here as elsewhere, we must listen to what Jesus says to his contemporaries and discover how he also addresses us. Some of the religious authorities known to him ignored the call to be servant leaders. People in positions of influence today sometimes ignore the same call.

They may be active in religion, or business, or politics, or some other field of endeavor. They may appear powerful, successful, or wealthy. They may be celebrities known and admired by many. But what makes them or breaks them, Jesus suggests, is whether they choose to be servants who lead, or end up as leaders who refuse to serve.

He points to characteristics of these leaders who refuse to serve.

— They burden others rather than relieve them of burdens. In today’s language, they pursue their own agenda in defiance of what others want or need.

— They do good deeds to impress others in order to have what we refer today as an image. They benefit others simply to benefit themselves.

— They like places of honor and marks of respect. In other words, they lust for what today we call perks.

Leaders who refuse to serve behave like this. There are plenty of them around in many areas of life. We are all familiar with the most notorious examples.

Jesus criticizes in detail leaders of this sort. Even more importantly, he demonstrates in life and death what it means to be a servant who leads.

From his opening talk in his hometown synagogue, it is clear that he has come as a servant. There he quotes Isaiah the prophet and claims that this scripture is fulfilled in him. “The spirit of the Lord is on me,” he declares,

“because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the broken hearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(Luke 4:18-19).

Thus Jesus inaugurates his public ministry, which is characterized by healing, teaching, deliverance, and advocacy. His exercise of servanthood calls him out of the crowd and exposes him as the messiah, God’s own anointed leader. It takes him to the cross and tomb, where through suffering and death and resurrection he becomes the new leader, the good shepherd, calling forth all people to join him on the new exodus from death to life, both here and hereafter.

Servant as leader is at the heart of the Jesus story. But Jesus does not serve and lead in order that others need not do so. He functions as the pioneer, opening the way so that others will follow. And it is glorious when they do so.

It was three years ago today (Nov. 2, 2005), in the city of Detroit, that America laid to rest a servant who became a leader, a Christian who followed the path of Christ. Her name was Rosa Parks. We tell her story incorrectly if we depict her as simply someone whose feet were tired one day, so that out of the blue she decided to break a racist law.

No, the story is better than that. Fifty years ago, on a Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white man. Her courageous witness motivated countless people to engage in nonviolent resistance to the legalized, institutionalized racism prevalent throughout the southern states. Four days after her arrest, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched. It lasted more than a year and gained the support of millions around the world. Finally the Supreme Court of the United States ordered city officials to desegregate their buses.

According to Dorothy Cotton, a colleague of Rosa Parks, “Hers was a revolutionary act because it was the spark that ignited a fire in the soul of a people hungry for freedom, and whose actions rearranged the social order.”

Rosa Parks took the risk of leadership. It was true and costly leadership that she provided for the Civil Rights Movement and for the nation. But she was able to step forward at the critical time because she was a servant who had become a leader.

Up until then, Rosa Parks was far from famous. There was nothing glamorous about her life. She helped support her family by taking in sewing to do at home. She worked as a house cleaner, and for a brief period as an insurance agent.

Rosa was very active in the community long before that famous day in 1955. She worked at various times for the Montgomery Voters League, the NAACP Youth Council, and various other civic and religious organizations. She gained a reputation for getting things done, and it was on this basis that she was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.

She also prepared herself through the hard work of education. She attended a small black university for a few years, and then went to the Highlander Center in the mountains of eastern Tennessee for training in direct action strategies to oppose segregation.

When the moment came, Rosa Parks was ready. When the moment came, she took the risk of leadership. All of us remain in her debt. And civil rights continues to be unfinished business for America.

It is insufficient to offer thanks for Rosa Parks and others like her unless we also dare to serve.

It is given to few people to march at the front of a movement. But it is given to all of us to face the choice of service, and on that basis hear the call to leadership. For some that may be leadership in the most public of projects. For most it will be leadership that goes unnoticed outside a small immediate circle. But every instance of leadership based on service proves itself important, for through servants exercising leadership, the world draws closer to the will of God.

Pharisees and scribes of the sort Jesus criticized continue to flourish today. They appear in halls of government, in the executive suites of corporations, and yes, even in religious hierarchies. But servant leaders appear among us as well, women and men like Rosa Parks prepared by their service to take the risk of leadership when the time is right. For such people there is always a place. There is always a need for them. In the economy of God, they are always welcome, always in demand.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2007 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.