In the Gospel last Sunday, we encountered the man who came to Jesus asking what must he do to gain eternal life. For that man, the cost of discipleship was too much to have to give up his riches. This week too we continue with the same theme where Jesus continues to teach His disciples what it means to follow Him.
Today we hear of the attempt of James and John in asking Jesus, “Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.” Even though the sons of Zebedee were among the first to be called by Jesus (Mk 1:16-20), and together with Peter were loved by Jesus in a special way, they too have not fully grasped what it means to follow Jesus.
What becomes clear in the Gospel today, despite being with Jesus for some time now, the disciples are thinking of the earthly, political power and riches which will come to them in Jesus’ messianic kingdom. Once again, just like the man who wanted to “inherit” eternal life, Jesus is going to respond to the brothers that these positions of importance are not something that can be claimed on merit but rather is a gift of the Father in heaven and then goes on to describe the attitude of servanthood in the kingdom of God.
The word ‘servanthood’ is sometimes heard with some trepidation. I recall reading an article some years ago as to why we should stop using the word ‘servant’ in our vocabulary. It was said that “the word servant serves to perpetuate a mindset that allows one person to be considered completely inferior to another because of the lowliness of their job”. It went on to say that society must accept that servant is a bad word and therefore has to be erased from our vocabularies.
The teaching of Jesus in the Gospel today is diametrically different from what the world considers the word ‘servant’ to mean. In fact, the attitude of being a servant is going to be at the core in the way Jesus presents the path of discipleship. To His disciples Jesus says, “anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all”. Jesus in no way abolishes authority but warns His disciples about domination. That is why we should not be mistaken to think that the Gospel today is only addressed to those in authority; it is addressed to all the disciples of Jesus.
The theme of servant-leadership has been one that has been much developed in the church. Unlike what the world may consider a bad word, servant leadership is actually leading like Jesus – “to serve, not to be served” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:25). Servant leadership is following the example of Jesus when He washed the feet of His disciples (John 13:1-17). In other words, servant leaders place themselves at the service of the people of God, and the mission and the vision of Holy Mother, Church.
This Sunday, in all Catholic dioceses throughout the world, we embark on an important journey towards a greater synodal church. Synodality denotes the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church which has the servant-leadership at its core. In launching this synodal process, Pope Francis articulated the three attitudes that is needed not only by the Church but also all the disciples of Jesus – encounter, listen, and discern. These are attitudes that can certainly touch hearts and minds at a time when the Church meets many challenges both within and without.
In the mould of Jesus who took on the role of a servant in order to save the world, to encounter means to be inclusive, non-judgemental, uplifting and transformative; to listen with the heart and not just the ear calls for openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the presence and the stories of others; and to discern with the guidance of the Holy Spirit where the wounds of division, anger, frustrations and even disillusionments can be healed.
Jesus came into our world, took on the role of a servant and gave life as a ransom for many. May our synodal journey be not only life-giving for the institutional Church but enriching also for the people of God following the footsteps of Jesus who came to serve and not be served.
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 Oct 2021)