LESSONS FROM JESUS IN LEADERSHIP
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
July 19, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Jeremiah 23:1-6 Psalm 23 Ephesians 2:13-18 Mark 6:30-34
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
We’ve heard relentlessly from preachers, sociologists and psychologists that humans are social animals, that we are meant to live in communities, and that aloneness is pathological. People who’ve been single for many years past the usual age for marriage, are often viewed as oddities by well-meaning relatives and friends urging them to find a mate. But aloneness, in and of itself, is sometimes a necessary part of being human, particularly if one is in leadership position such as a manager or supervisor in a place of employment, a public official, or the pastor of a church.
Leadership positions are inherently social, requiring ongoing interaction with others. Leaders are in the business of meeting the expectations of others. Living day in and day out dealing with people is not easy. If you’re in that kind of position, you need to take an occasional time-out, so you can continue to be effective. Jesus, just as human as we are, knew that leaders need to take time out to rest and recoup. The story line in Mark leading up to the gospel today had Jesus sending out his disciples on a mission, and then hearing about the murder of John the Baptist, and as you know, that was a rather gruesome story, featuring the presentation of his head on a silver platter at the request of one King Herod’s mad relatives. So under all those circumstances, Jesus and his disciples understandably needed to take time off, and that’s exactly what they did, as Jesus told them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” Off they went in their boat, without even a chance to eat.
But their rest time was short-lived. When people saw them leaving, huge crowds besieged Jesus for the wisdom and healing only He could provide. So eager were they for Jesus, that they got to the place where He planned to speak before He did. They saw Jesus as a leader.
What exactly is a leader? A leader is not a manager. Warren Bennis, a business school professor, defined the difference between a leader and a manager. He said, “managers are people who do things right, while leaders are those who do the right thing.” A good leader is a shepherd. What is a shepherd? People seek leaders who are shepherds. A shepherd understands the needs of the sheep. A shepherd will empathize with their concerns, protect them, and show them the way. A shepherd comforts sheep when they are hurt or fearful. A shepherd leads sheep to fresh pastures and water. A shepherd searches out sheep when they stray. A shepherd rejoices in the success and prosperity of the flock. A shepherd will sacrifice the shepherd’s own life for the sheep. Jesus was all that, and more. In today’s Gospel, we hear that the people seeking to hear Jesus and receive His ministry, were like “sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus saw their need, and fulfilled it better than they ever expected.
The role of a leader in any organization is to effectuate a set of values, to inspire those whom he or she leads. Our political leaders often inspire others with their passion for a cause. A good example is Senator Bernie Sanders, who is taking up the cause of the ninety-nine percent against the one-percent. An explorer leads by cutting a path through a jungle for others to follow. And a corporate executive leads by developing a strategy for a business to succeed. In His leadership, Jesus was all of that. He was certainly passionate on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, so passionate that He was willing to go to the cross to maintain His own integrity, rather than disengage from His ministry to save His own skin from the Sanhedrin and the Roman Empire. And His life cut a path where no one had gone previously, advocating love in place of retaliation. And yes, Jesus had a strategy to beat His competition, Satan – Jesus overcame the Evil One by rising from the dead, and reigning in an everlasting victory, trampling down death by death, to establish the Kingdom of God. The ongoing strategic plan of Jesus, however, is still with us. It is called the Church, of which we are part by our Baptism, and which continues in its purest form, by the constant celebration of the Mass like we do here today as God’s people. Jesus outlined his strategy when He entrusted the Church to His disciples, giving us the Eucharist for the continued celebration of his life, death, resurrection and ascension, as the events heralding the triumph of Jesus over evil, wherein Jesus inspired us with His vision of God’s Kingdom. Do you recall all those descriptions of the Kingdom of Heaven in the gospels of Matthew and Luke? Jesus told those stories to share His vision with humanity.
Not every leader, however, is as successful as Jesus. Today’s Old Testament lesson is about shepherds who failed miserably. The role of a shepherd of sheep is not just to drive them from place to place so they get enough to eat, it’s also to protect the sheep from predators. In Old Testament times, kings of nations were likened to shepherds, not only ruling the people, but keeping them safe from enemies. In today’s reading, Jeremiah was describing the kings of Israel, in particular, the last four, who were Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. They were the bad shepherds who misled and abused the people in their care, scattering and exploiting them, instead of leading them together as a nation, and defending them from the invasion by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, resulting in exile from the Promised Land for about seventy years. But God was determined to see a new regime with new shepherds to establish God’s reign on earth, gathering the remnant of God’s people from those returning from the Babylonian Exile, under shepherds who will care for and protect them, and most important, “none shall be lost.” Here we see the inclusiveness of God, manifesting itself several hundred years before Jesus came on the scene. But Jeremiah thinks God had Jesus in mind, as he tells us that a new king, a new shepherd, descended from the great King David will be established, who will what is just and allow God’s people to live in security in the land of Israel. As you will recall, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke trace the genealogy of Jesus back to King David.
As the ministry of Jesus unfolds in the Gospels, we see what good shepherding, that is good leadership, looks like. When one is in a leadership position, it’s important to keep one’s ear to the ground, to know what the people one is leading are thinking and feeling. As a leader, one cannot live in one’s own world, and not pay attention to what’s happening on the ground among the people one leads. Leaders can’t just do what they want to do. They have to respond to their constituencies, or they end up without a constituency. For example, the owner of a business has to meet the needs of its customers, while simultaneously responding to the agendas of employees, lenders, suppliers and government agencies. Politicians have to respond to the desires of their constituents, lest they be defeated at the polls.
A good leader is a servant, not a dominator. Jesus exemplified that. In the Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul tells us Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Recall that He told us He was among us as one who serves, and that He washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The leader intent on domination is the kind who scatters the sheep and drives them away. That kind of leader gets compliance only by fear. People obey, fearing loss of their livelihood, leading to poverty. Workers who comply with the demands of an authoritarian boss, because they fear losing their job, don’t work because they want to achieve something. Rather, they are focused on mere survival, instead of the feeling of satisfaction from doing a job well. A business that runs on that kind of atmosphere deserves to fail.
Note that in His role as a shepherd and leader, Jesus was not the command-and-control type. He led by inspiring people, not controlling them. When one tries to control people, they rebel. Note how people who live in countries with repressive regimes respond in one of two ways: either they leave, or start a revolution. It’s the old “flight or fight”. People tolerate oppression only for so long. By contrast, people wanted to be with Jesus, because Jesus was there to serve them with a ministry of healing, teaching, and confronting the oppressive power structure that characterized the status quo of His day.
Jesus shows us that a leader who serves is a leader who gathers. People gather around a leader who meet their needs, just like in the business world, people are more likely to do a good job at work for a nice boss, than for a tyrant.
Jesus proved that one cannot be an effective leader, unless one respects the dignity of those one leads. Jesus did that, but the Church has not always done that. Historically, the Church has likened the laity to animal-type sheep, and has treated them like sheep, expecting them to pray, pay and obey. That’s demeaning. And some Church leaders have abused those whom they led, such as the abuse of children that’s received so much publicity over the last twenty years. Not only is the abuse in and of itself wrong, but its effect is the opposite of evangelization. Nearly all the victims of abusive conduct have turned away from whatever institutional church where the conduct occurred, be it Roman or otherwise. Many have left religion altogether. In the words today’s lesson from Jeremiah, they have become sheep who were scattered and driven away. In the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, they are now sheep without a shepherd. When we encounter those people in our travels, we can talk about how Jesus gathers and cares for people, but in most instances, that won’t be enough to get them to Mass.
Yet we can’t ever cease to talk about the love of Jesus, exemplified by His death on the cross. Jesus draws us to Himself by bringing peace. On the cross, He reconciled us to God by putting the interests of humanity ahead of His human survival instinct. To give a concrete, contemporary example of how that looks and feels, consider business owners who accept a lower standard of living for themselves, so their employees can earn a living wage and have health insurance. What kind of message is that to their employees? The message is that they work for someone who cares about them as people, a shepherd that truly cares about the sheep. Unfortunately, such owners are few, as so many of them are taken in by, and endlessly chase, the so-called “American Dream” to maximize personal luxury, which at the end of the day, is supremely empty and meaningless, proving the emptiness of human toil.
You don’t have to be Christian to learn leadership lessons from Jesus, who was the shepherd prophesized by Jeremiah, who will bring freedom from fear by preaching peace and establishing God’s justice. Despite being executed as a criminal, Jesus managed to inspire an organization that now has more than two billion followers and has lasted almost two thousand years. If nothing else, those numbers prove Jesus knew how to gather people into a community, better than any other leader in human history. He continues to be the greatest of shepherds, with the largest herd. Clearly, Jesus knew a thing or two about leadership. AMEN.