August 27, 2017

In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, Shebna is described as the master of the palace. But it doesn’t go well for him as his removal from office occupies the reading. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter responded by saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus responded by affirming his answer and told Peter he was the rock on which the Church will be built.

Today I ask a question we have asked since the beginning of time: Who will lead us? Today’s readings center on the particular and complex call of who we look to for leadership. The call to lead others, in any setting, calls us to complex abilities, talents, and (let’s face it) willingness.

Many of us know that I used to be a Catholic priest. Anyone who grew up Catholic knows that priests are given a great deal of power. Priests are not only given the power to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but also the power to forgive sins. My best moments centered on my ability to empower and affirm good people. My worst moments centered on seeing my fellow priests (OK, maybe myself) abuse their power to manipulate good people and advance their own power at the expense of others.

All of those experiences led me to this question: is leadership different in a Christian context? I think so. When I studied philosophy in college we read The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. I’m oversimplifying this but Machiavelli saw leadership as a way to exert power over others; he advocated doing whatever was necessary to make certain nobody challenged the leader’s authority. He also suggested to his readers that they can do whatever necessary to attain power. Even today the word “Machiavellian” means “ruthless.” As a young, naive college student I wrote a paper on this arguing that this can be read outside of morality. My professor scolded me (and he was right).

If Machiavelli shows us how human leadership should look, our reading outline how discipleship leadership should look. Our first reading from Isaiah requires some context. As I’ve spoken about before, the prophet Isaiah has at least two and likely three writers and describes events over the course of nearly 200 years.

The events of the first reading took place during the regin of King Hezekiah (around 700 BCE). King Hezekiah is generally seen as a righteous king and reformed many of the sinful actions of his father. Shebna, however, read from a different script. He was the king’s “money guy” (or secretary, or treasurer, or majorduomo, or, well you get the message). In this reading Shebna is ousted because he misused his power. There are several views on this, but suffice it to say that Shebna enjoyed his power way too much. He was discovered and replaced. Machiavelli would have cheered him on, but God did not. From this reading we learn that those who are given power are also given the responsibility to use that power to serve.

The term “servant leader” may be familiar to many of us. In the late 1980s I read a book called The Servant as Leader and it spoke to the belief that true leadership does not build up the leader, but instead builds up those who are led. We can see King Hezekiah as a servant leader and Shebna as a betrayal of servant leadership.

And Jesus continues this theme. We all see Jesus as the leader of his disciples (and after his resurrection he became the redeemer) but Jesus was looking ahead to see who would lead when he was gone. And so he tests them.

Frankly, I applaud Jesus for his courage. I’m not sure I’d be willing to ask those closest to me who they think I am. It takes a fair amount of courage to listen to the answer. But he does, and Peter replies: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We all know that Peter later became the leader of the earliest days of the Christian Church and many of us see him as the first Pope. And many of us trace this to Jesus’ response: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

But we hardly look to Peter for guidance on discipleship. Later, when Jesus was arrested and on trial for his life, Peter denied (three times) that he knew Jesus. And yet Peter led.

So it’s fair to say that God does not always use our values for leadership. Several years ago I read a hilarious “memo” from the Jordan Mangement Consultants to Jesus, Son of Joseph. The memo responds to Jesus’ request that these consultants evaluate his disciples. This is what they wrote:

Dear Sir:

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew had been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.

I still laugh when I read this, but it makes a good point: God’s ways are not our ways. Too often we look to leaders who promise what we want, or crave, or fear. They appeal not to what is best in us, but what is worst.

And so we can ask: how do we choose leaders, and how do we know if we are called to leadership? Let me circle back to Hezekiah and Shebna. When Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz he could well have continued his father’s wicked ways. Instead his moral compass pointed him back to God and he led his people back to God. When he learned that Shebna, one of his employees, worked against him, Hezekiah removed him.

And for all of Peter’s complicated history, he did indeed lead the early church well. At the beginning of this homily I spoke of how we need to evaluate our gifts. If, when given power, we choose to build up ourselves and others like us, we can assume we are not called to leadership. On the other hand, if we see power as a path to serve others (particularly those with no voice), we should probably listen to that call.