There is old wisdom in the saying “be careful what you wish for”. Indeed ideas often precede actions and sometimes they have an effect on us at the subconscious level and thus have the capacity to surface and influence our actions before we even realise it. When an idea, even one suppressed for a time suddenly surfaces it can surprise us and influence us to act in ways that might not correspond to our value systems or even to our choices already made. Perhaps in another sense today’s gospel text reminds us of Andy Warhol’s oft quoted suggestion that ‘everyone wants 15 minutes of fame’.
Not that harbouring ambition or desires is wrong in itself. Indeed everyone has a basic ambition to find meaning, belonging and authenticity in life. However the danger seems to be that these genuine pursuits can also be misdirected into a more undeveloped, egocentric pursuit of status, power or control.
This seems to be the tenure of the request James and John put to Jesus. They seek the status of a closer association with Jesus, but they miss the deeper truth and meaning of what ‘leadership’ is in the vision of Jesus. Notice that Jesus immediately puts their shallow interpretation of leadership on notice – he immediately links leadership to the capacity and willingness to make sacrifices and suffer for the sake of others, and in that way lead by example.
Let’s notice too the reactions of the other disciples to this request. Their response is one of indignation and this is also telling. Indignation is often directed at others and their perceived ‘poor’ behaviour, but like many reactions that take place it also reveals something about the person who is indignant. A useful reflection for ourselves might be to ask ‘What is happening within me when I am indignant at the behaviour of others?’ In the case of the others disciples in today’s gospel, could it be that their feelings arise from jealousy? Could it be that they secretly harbour the same desires for the very same recognition and privileges? Whatever, the lesson for us might be that our external reactions to any situation can be useful guides to us – if reviewed honestly and openly – in that they might reveal to us our own inner world and its harboured desires.
This is so important for all of us in living the various expressions of our leadership in society, church, family or workplace. Yes the exercise of power whether personal or institutional is a real part of life and it is necessary. Power, wisely and compassionately exercised enables authority to be manifested so that good may eventuate. But if power is exercised in a shallow or self-centred manner and used so that one’s own will prevails at the expense of others’ legitimate needs, then we have entered the territory that Jesus warns about, a world where “rulers lord it over” their people. In essence this is self-serving behaviour, while it can look like ‘strength’ it reveals weakness, self-centredness or selfishness on the part of the bearer. It serves self-interest rather than enabling the service of others.
For Jesus leadership is intimately connected to service and sacrifice; together they form the one reality.
We all “lead” in numerous ways. Leadership surfaces in relationships, marriages and in family systems just as much as it is present in organisations and wider community based associations. The words of Jesus are indeed challenging- if we want to lead then this comes with an inherent invitation to assume the posture of a slave, to be a servant and to give one’s life for the sake of others.
Fr. Denis Travers, C.P., is a member of Holy Spirit Province, Australia. He currently serves on the General Council and is stationed in Rome.