Mt. 20:25-28 & Lk. 19:28-48
This Holy Week, we will be meditating on the theme of Christian leadership. Jesus contrasts His example with the rulers of the Gentiles when He says that the great must be servants, the first must be slaves: “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). Jesus points to the giving of His life as the model for all Christian leadership, an authority grounded in service. This means that the shape of Jesus’ self-giving can and must be studied as our preeminent example of Christian leadership, and so today we focus on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The Rulers of the Gentiles
In order to see the significance of what Jesus does on Palm Sunday, we need to understand the contrast Jesus draws. The rulers of the Gentiles exercise authority by “lording over” and by “exerting authority.” And historically this happens in one of two ways: First is by raw, brute force and violence. And the second is by a combination of kindness and coercion. The first is what we might call “aggressive” and the second is what we call “passive-aggressive.” The one operates on the power of fear; the other doubles the power of fear by adding in a confusing mixture of hope and passivity. Moments of kindness or hurt feelings become the counter weights for the moments of aggression. Both methods of leadership function by means of manipulation, by emotional or physical force (and often both).
How is Christian leadership to be different than “coercive” or “passive aggressive” methods of leadership? When a mother spanks her young son and then prays with him and hugs him and explains that he must not disobey – is this coercive or passive-aggressive? When a leader tells his people that he loves them, cares for them and therefore he has decided to lead in a particular direction (perhaps in a direction the company doesn’t prefer) – is this passive aggressive? The Bible’s answer seems to be: it depends.
When Jesus commands that a colt be given to his disciples for his use, and He deliberately stages a scene that pictures the great Israelite kings of old riding into Jerusalem in victory, refuses to listen to the religious authorities in Jerusalem, breaks into tears over the city and then announces its coming destruction for not listening to Him, and then breaks into a rage and turns over tables and drives people out of the temple – is Jesus being passive-aggressive? Our instinctive answer is “no,” but why not?
A Ransom for Many
Jesus said that His leadership program can be summarized as His plan to serve and give His life as a “ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). His leadership pays debts and sets people free. In contrast to the rulers of the Gentiles who exert authority and lordship, Jesus serves and gives His life as a ransom. Gentile-leadership tries to get people “to do things” and often in order to serve the leader; Jesus-leadership serves people through speaking and enacting the truth in order to set them free (Jn. 8:32).
Jesus served the people through owning His true identity and riding into Jerusalem as their king, and He wouldn’t silence the people because they were rejoicing in the truth (Lk. 19:37-40). Jesus served the people through His tears over Jerusalem so they might truly see their dire situation (Lk. 19:41-44). Jesus served the people through enacting God’s fierce judgment and restoration of true worship (Lk. 19:45-48). True Christian leadership serves by living truthfully in order to set people free to become all God created them to be.
Jesus isn’t going into Jerusalem to “get” the Jews to obey Him. And neither is Jesus going into Jerusalem to “get” the Jews to kill Him so they’ll feel bad and then obey Him. The first would be straightforward coercive leadership, and the latter would be passive-aggressive. Jesus came to set people free to be what God created them to be. He wants to set them free from the worship of idols to worship the true God (Lk. 19:37-40). He wants to set them free from the violence and coercion of their enemies (Lk. 19:41-44). He wants to set them free from the slavery to greed and spiritual manipulation (Lk. 19:45-48). Jesus isn’t doing anything to “get” the people to do something. Jesus does what He does in order to free the people to be who God made them to be. He comes to heal our blindness so that we can see the world rightly, so that we can see what has always been true all along. Ultimately, Jesus will accomplish this by dying and rising in such a way as to reveal to the world that He is the rightful “King who comes in the name of the Lord.” He will die and rise again in such a way as to take upon Himself the wrath of God that all sin deserves and set men free to live without shame or guilt or fear. He will die and rise again in such a way as to undo the need for buying and selling sacrifices so that all nations can draw near to God in the freedom of prayer.
We are all like the centurion who when he saw Jesus die (having seen many Jews crucified over the years), could not help but exclaim: Truly this is the Son of God!
In the case of parenting, Christ-like leadership aims to communicate the truth and set children free from beliefs, habits, and actions that enslave them and prevent them from knowing the truth and becoming the men and women they were created to be. It’s not fundamentally about “getting them to do things.” It’s about displaying the goodness and glory of Christ for them to rejoice in. It’s about sorrowing over sin and evil and inviting them to see the world rightly through Christ. It’s about standing fiercely against whatever may prevent them from drawing near to God.
In a marriage or a family or a business or the Church, Christ-like leadership is not trying to “get people to do things” nor does it collapse into passivity or apathy. There certainly is a fleshly arrogance and ambition that seeks its own glory, but there is another kind of Christ-like leadership that rejoices in being a husband, a parent, a boss, a statesman, an elder – and aspires to those positions. When Jesus road into Jerusalem, He was embracing the truth of who He was and what God had called Him to be. We are called to imitate that by embracing our callings as mothers, fathers, husbands, friends, elders, employers. And there is great joy and freedom for wives, employees, constituencies, and congregations when those callings are received with joy. How can you enact and embrace this glory? But this glory is not merely regal, it is also humble and full of feeling and vigor. Often you will be resisted or disobeyed, and this will be heartbreaking. But this is too is part of how we tell the truth in order to set others free. What must you mourn? And finally, what must you drive away? How are you called to enact the truth to set others free?
Jesus rode into Jerusalem two thousand years ago not to get people to do certain things, but to serve them with the truth and ransom them from captivity to sin and death so they might become all they were created to be.