Power and Leadership in Luke
As king, Jesus is the leader of God’s realm. He employs his power in many ways recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Yet Christians are often reluctant to exercise leadership or power, as if the two were inherently evil. Jesus teaches otherwise. Christians are called to lead and to exercise power, but unlike the powers of the fallen world, they are to use it for God’s purposes rather than for their own self-interest.
In the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), a poor, powerless person (the widow) persists in nagging a corrupt, powerful person (the judge) to do justice for her. The parable assumes John the Baptist’s teaching that holding a position of power and leadership obligates you to work justly, especially on behalf of the poor and weak. But Jesus focuses the parable on a different point, that we are “to pray always and to not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He identifies the hearers — us — with the woman, and the prayed-to person — God — with the corrupt judge, a strange combination. Assuming that Jesus doesn’t mean that God is corrupt, the point must be that if persistence pays off with a corrupt human of limited power, how much more will it pay off with a just God of infinite power.
The purpose of the parable is to encourage Christians to persevere in their faith against all odds. But it also has two applications for those who work in positions of leadership. First, the juxtaposition of a corrupt judge with a just God implies that God’s will is at work even in a corrupt world. The judge’s job is to do justice, and by God, he will do justice by the time the widow is finished with him. Elsewhere, the Bible teaches that the civil authorities serve by God’s authorization, whether they acknowledge it or not (John 19:11; Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13). So there is hope that even in the midst of systemic injustice, justice may be done. A Christian leader’s job is to work toward that hope at all times. We cannot right every wrong in the world in our lifetimes. But we must never give up hope, and never stop working for the greater good in the midst of the imperfect systems where our work occurs. Legislators, for example, seldom have a choice of voting for a good bill versus a bad bill. Usually the best they can do is to vote for bills that do more good than bad. But they must continually look for opportunities to bring bills to a vote that do even less harm and even more good.
The second point is that only God can bring about justice in a corrupt world. That is why we must pray and not give up in our work. God can bring miraculous justice in a corrupt world, just as God can bring miraculous healing in a sick world. Suddenly, the Berlin wall opens, the apartheid regime crumbles, peace breaks out. In the parable of the persistent widow, God does not intervene. The widow’s persistence alone leads the judge to act justly. But Jesus indicates that God is the unseen actor. “Will not God grant justice for his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7).
The use of the term “greater good” implies that the consequences of our actions are important in Christian ethics. This mode of ethical thinking, called “consequentialism,” may be unfamiliar to those who are used to thinking of the Bible only in terms of ethical rules. However, the Bible makes use of all three modes of ethical reasoning that have been identified over the centuries: rules, consequences and virtues. By no means does this make the Bible “relativistic” or “utilitarian,” to name two ethical systems that truly are foreign to biblical thinking. This topic is discussed in detail in the article Ethics at Work at www.theologyofwork.org.
The parable of the ten minas (“pounds” in the NRSV translation) is set in the workplace of high finance. A rich — and soon to be powerful — nobleman goes on an extended trip to be crowned king. Most of his people hate him and send word ahead that they oppose this coronation (Luke 19:14). In his absence, he assigns three of his servants to invest his money. Two of them take the risk of investing their master’s money. They earn handsome returns. A third servant is afraid to take the risk, so he puts the money in a safe place. It earns no return. When the master returns, he has become king of the whole territory. He rewards the two servants who made money for him, promoting them to high positions of their own. He punishes the servant who kept the money safe but unproductive. Then he commands that all who opposed him be killed in his presence.
Jesus tells this parable immediately before going to Jerusalem, where he is to be crowned king (“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” Luke 19:38) but soon is rejected by his people. This identifies Jesus with the nobleman in the parable, and the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) with the people in the parable who oppose the nobleman’s coronation. By this we know that the people have profoundly misjudged their soon-to-be king, except for the two servants who work diligently in his absence. The parable, in this context, warns us that we must decide if Jesus is indeed God’s appointed king and be prepared to abide the consequences of our decision either to serve him or oppose him.
This parable makes explicit that citizens of God’s kingdom are responsible to work toward God’s goals and purposes. In this parable, the king tells his servants directly what he expects them to do, namely, to invest his money. This specific calling or command makes it clear that preaching, healing, and evangelism (the apostles’ callings) are not the only things God calls people to do. Of course, not everyone in God’s kingdom is called to be an investor, either. In this parable, only three of the country’s residents are called to be investors. The point is that acknowledging Jesus as king requires working toward his purposes in whatever field of work you do.
Seen in this light, the parable suggests if we choose to accept Jesus as king, we must expect to lead risky lives. The servants who invested the master’s money faced the risk of being attacked by those around them who rejected the master’s authority. And they faced the risk of disappointing their master by making investments that might lose money. Even their success exposes them to risk. Now that they have tasted success and been promoted, they risk becoming greedy or power-mad. They face the risk that their next investments — which will involve much greater sums — will fail and expose them to much more severe consequences. In Anglo-American business (and sports) practice, CEOs (and head coaches) are routinely fired for mediocre results, whereas those in lower-level positions are fired only for exceptionally poor performance. Neither failure nor success is safe in this parable, or in today’s workplace. It is tempting to duck for cover and search for a safe way of accommodating to the system while waiting for things to get better. But ducking for cover is the one action Jesus condemns in the parable. The servant who tries to avoid risk is singled out as unfaithful. We are not told what would have happened if the other two servants had lost money on their investments, but the implication is that all investments made in faithful service to God are pleasing to him, whether or not they achieve their intended payoff.
Darrell L. Block, Luke, Vol. 2: 9:51-24:53 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 1525-1545.
Jesus declares that leadership requires humble service to others, as we see in three additional passages. In the first (Luke 9:46-50), Jesus’ disciples begin arguing who will be the greatest. Jesus replies that the greatest is the one who welcomes a child in his name. “The least among all of you is the greatest.” Notice that the model is not the child, but the person who welcomes a child. Serving those whom everyone else considers not worth their time is what makes a leader great.
The second passage (Luke 14:7-11) is Jesus’ response to the social posturing he sees at a banquet. Not only is it a waste of time, Jesus says, it’s actually counterproductive. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” As applied to leadership, this means that if you try to take credit for everything, people will want to stop following you, or get distracted from their work by trying to make you look bad. But if you give credit to others, people will want to follow you and that will lead to true recognition.
The third passage (Luke 22:24-30) returns to the question of who is the greatest among the disciples. This time Jesus makes himself the model of leadership through service. “I am among you as one who serves.” In all three stories, the concepts of service and humility are tied together. Effective leadership requires service — or is — service. Service requires acting as if you are less important than you think you are.