Week of November 27

The Smile of Service that Pleases God

Read: Matthew 23-25
“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Matthew 23:11-12, ESV


Some of the most powerful messages that we may ever receive are delivered in the form of pictures. I have viewed some amazing works of art in museums both here and abroad, but Matthew brushes his portrait across human hearts. He wants us to view the dawning of Christ’s kingdom even as Old Testament Judaism was setting like an evening sun. It is here in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus presents His disciples with a final long block of teaching that shows them a panoramic view of the end of Judaism as they knew it.
There is an underlying moral authority that permeates the entire section and provides us with an important framework for applying the passage to our lives. I have chosen to focus on the warnings that Jesus gave to His followers regarding corrupt leadership (23:1-12). Bear with me because we all do well when we learn and apply Jesus’ words about genuine servant leadership.

Understanding the Bible Context

Setting the wrong example
Matthew records Jesus’ final discourse in chapters 23:1-25:46. He presents a sweeping view of the final judgment of the Judaism they had known. He sets the stage in 21:28-22:14, presents the “verdict against Israel” in 23:1-32, follows with the “sentence” in 23:33-36, and then its final “execution” in 23:37-24:2. 
These chapters fall into two parts. First, Jesus focuses on the scribes and Pharisees and then teaches His disciples about the upcoming destruction of the Temple and final judgment of all peoples (HCBC). The religious leaders of His day were false (23:3-4), and Jesus warned His followers not to imitate them. They were guilty of hubris (23:5-7), hurtful examples (23:15), and hypocritical behavior (23:13). Some current church leadership we hear about are sadly quite similar. So, what are we to do?
Defining and applying servant leadership
Jesus provides us with a consistent word on the nature of leadership throughout the Gospels. It is spelled s-e-r-v-a-n-t (23:11). Keep in mind that God was always understood to be the leader with a capital “L.” Therefore, Jesus instructed His disciples to lay aside the three “Hs” that I previously listed (see Matthew 18:1-5; Luke 9:54 and Matthew 5:19-20). There was no place for these character flaws in the lives of those who guided others; especially since the Heavenly Father’s character was to be their example. They were to “serve like Jesus,” which would provide the right type of leadership (see Matthew 20:26). Pause for a minute and think about all of the Christian “how to” books on leadership. Many define leadership in terms of action but fail to focus on attitude (character). Thankfully, Jesus does, and sums up leadership as “humble service.”
The currency of the kingdom of God
Matthew repeatedly brings humility to the forefront because this is the “coin of the kingdom.” If humility is the subject, then the verbs are “be humbled” and “be a servant.” He uses future tense verbs in our focal passage which point to the coming kingdom (cf. Acts 2). His point was not natural law but kingdom law, so getting ahead meant being a servant and being humbled (cf. EBC). Get it?
Natural law provides no clear moral path to leadership since we are left to the use of finite human reason to discern moral principles in nature and human relationships. Kingdom law provides us with a solid moral basis for leadership because it stems from the Father’s nature and actions (Exodus 34:6-8; Ezekiel 20:26). My bottom line is simply this: start modeling leadership by showing the disciples how to serve the Father/Leader. This style of serving the Leader will be rewarded in the coming age. Surely, we think, this “leadership approach” places weakness at the forefront. Enter Jesus!
Our Divine example
Jesus was a servant, not servile; humble, not humiliated. Jesus knew from Whom the authority for ministry was derived, the Heavenly Father, so He was freed to exercise that power through service given to others (John 13:3). Therefore, Jesus did not teach a “leadership approach”; instead, it was a “discipleship approach” that generated extraordinary moral influence.
Jesus did not lord over humanity from Calvary. He laid down His life and served us there (cf. John 13:14). God produces life change through the moral conduit that is our humble service. A common mantra today is “lead like Jesus,” but I believe He would exhort us to fall beneath a different rubric: “serve like Jesus.”

Applying the Passage to Our Lives

I served at a recent event and was providing “behind the scenes” help where it was needed. “It was needed” surfaced at a trash receptacle that was filled to overflowing with every kind of food scrap from meat to fruit salad bits to a variety of casseroles. That food had looked appetizing in the serving line but had lost its appeal at the discard place!

The line had quickly begun to back up, so I began to shovel with my hands a good portion of the overflowing trash can into a fresh garbage sack, so there would be room for people to throw away their plates and drink cups. I know! You are thinking, “Ashlock, that's enough of the dirty details,” and I agree. Bear with me, please.
A man suddenly appeared next to me and offered to help. He had the most pleasant look on his face, even as we labored over our messy assignment. I cannot help but think of how pleased the Lord must have been with him. People then began to thank us for serving them in that way, and I cannot forget their sincere faces. That was not the time for theological reflection, so I will provide a bit at this moment.
Here are several thoughts on applied theology that emerge from the passage. Jesus challenged the hypocritical hearts of many leaders in His generation (and ours) because their phoniness held deep moral implications for the people.

Those leaders made demands of the people, but they were not willing to help them to achieve them (23:4). Some of their avoidance may be attributed to their prejudice against the ordinary folks (“people of the land”; contrast Jesus’ easy burden, 11:28-30). He opens for our view the wide divide between the leaders and the laity, as we would say in this generation. It had led to a severed trust that was created by their errant lives.

Jesus’ followers serve others from the heart with God in view and do whatever it takes to honor Him. For Jesus it was the cross, and for us it will become bearing the cross daily (John 13:1-7, 12-16; 15:13, “greater love has no man than this”; Matthew 26:39, “nevertheless not as I will, but as you will”).

Reflecting Upon and Discussing the Passage

1. Write down your places of leadership: in the home, on the job, and at the church. How may these be transformed by your acts of service?
In what ways has your leadership effectiveness been eroded by the indicators of flawed discipleship—i.e., hubris, hurtful actions, and hypocrisy? Ask the Lord to give you a humble servant’s heart, wherever you have been placed by Him to lead by serving.
2. For Families: Our families can be training grounds in servanthood. We can rear children who love Jesus and want to serve Him by serving others. They can grow in discipleship with humble hearts, who express gratitude to God and enjoy helping others in His name.

Have a family table discussion some evening after supper, and ask your family members, one by one, what are their favorite jobs to do around the house and why. Make a list. Then ask around the table again, what are their least favorite jobs to do around the house? Note these on the list too. The dialogue that takes place will help each of you to know the others better (preferences, gifts, desires), and also open everyone’s eyes to the many unseen jobs it takes to run a household.

Ask your family members to look at the list carefully, take note of what each other has voiced, and choose one hard job someone else does not like, and perform that job for them this week. Encourage the worker to write a brief note to that family member, explaining that the job was done in the name of Jesus and because they are loved. Practice serving others together, and your children will become disciples who love to do the same.

May your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock