The other ten disciples cannot believe that James and John would ask to sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus and become “indignant” toward the two brothers (Matt. 20:24). This feeling is not entirely unbecoming to a follower of Jesus, if the other members of the Twelve are upset because James and John fail to practice the humility Christ has commended in His followers (18:1–4). It does not seem, however, that their anger is provoked by the failure of James and John to obey Jesus; rather, they are perturbed because the two disciples have been trying to take glory for themselves without sharing it with the others. After all, Jesus gathers the entire group together in today’s passage to describe the greatness of service, something only James and John would need to hear if the other ten disciples had the proper motivation for their indignation. At this point, position is what all of Christ’s disciples are seeking.
To seek one’s greatness and power, Jesus tells us, is at odds with kingdom values (20:25–28). Gentiles lord their authority over one another, a reference to the Roman system where humility was a vice and might was always right. On the other hand, God’s children serve one another. Greatness is found in putting others first and in seeking the welfare of others above one’s own (see Phil. 2:1–11). John Chrysostom comments, “Loving the first place is not fitting to us, even though it may be among the nations. Such a passion becomes a tyrant. It continually hinders even great men” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 65.4). In the kingdom, the last are first and the first are last (Matt. 20:16).
Christians are servant-leaders because that is how their Master operates. He came to serve and give His life “as a ransom for many” (v. 28). Certainly, we cannot give our lives for others precisely as Jesus did since we cannot atone for sin. Yet we can imitate Christ’s service by not clutching tightly to any “rights” we think are ours, letting them go for the sake of another’s good. Like Jesus, we are able to see others as friends, not worthless subjects (John 15:13–15). We are not to think ourselves above “menial” tasks (13:1–17). Whatever it may look like in our lives, the only way to be great is to put the needs of others above our own.
Matthew Henry writes, “It is the duty of Christ’s disciples to serve one another, for mutual edification.” A true leader leads by example, never asking others to do something that the leader is unwilling to do himself. He does not seek leadership in order to have power and authority over others, he leads in order to do good for other people. Is the leadership function you perform, no matter how large or small it might be, characterized by such service?
For further study:
The Bible in a year: