And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, "Is this not Joseph's son?" And He said to them, "No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, 'Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'" And He said, "Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown." (Luke 4:21-24)
A prophet is a leader, a messenger, a person whom God uses to relay messages to people who are not listening well enough for Him to speak to them directly. A prophet takes words and thoughts from the divine and through a human intermediary passes them on using the language of the people and expressing God's thoughts in ways people might be able to understand.
A prophet is a leader, but he is supposed to be a leader of a kind very different from how leaders are normally thought of in this world. A prophet of God is to reflect the character of God and use only the methods of God which are usually opposite of the methods and ways of the world around us. This especially applies to their attitude, which is the issue Jesus kept trying to explain to His disciples who for so long remained stuck in the world's thinking of what a leader was supposed to look and act like.
But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28 NRSV)
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:24-27 NIV)
Jesus was called the greatest prophet who ever lived, and this is absolutely true. Yes, He was also greater than a prophet, but He filled the role of a prophet, taking the things of God and translating everything He received into a format and language which humans could relate to and better understand.
Jesus was also the epitome of what a leader is to look like in the family of God. On these two separate occasions Jesus explained in detail to His squabbling disciples that their ideas of what it meant to be a leader were completely backwards from what a leader in His kingdom needed to be. To be a true leader in the service of Jesus requires that one first have the attitude and mind of Christ as described in Philippians 2 where Jesus is described as continually humbling Himself. Jesus Himself used an example of leadership by comparing Himself to how mid-eastern shepherds led their sheep. They did not drive them from behind as many today do, but rather by walking ahead of them and relying on the sheep's loyalty and trust to follow His lead. Hence the root of the word itself – lead-er, to go ahead.
This takes me back to the first Scripture that I began with above. It occurred to me this morning that when the eager crowd in His hometown expected Him to perform some miracles to satisfy their curiosity, their frustration with His inaction emerged in the description of their thoughts that He expressed openly. “If you are what everyone elsewhere says you are cracked up to be, why don't you go ahead and show the people here who have known who you really are what others claim you do for them? If you think you are such an effective physician, able to heal all sorts of problems, they why don't you care enough about your reputation with us home folks to strut some of your newfound 'abilities' here? Prove to us how important you are like we hear others talk about you.”
This is what I discern in what Jesus said they were thinking about Him, “Physician, heal yourself!” They were musing, what makes you think you are qualified to be a healer? Everyone around here knows full well you have never had one day of training to qualify you to do anything of the sort. So if the rumors we hear about you are actually true and you want to earn our loyalty and support, then buck it up and prove to us what you can do so we can see for ourselves.
“But don't expect to get off easy with us like how you might be fooling others. We know who you really are because we have been around you ever since you were very young. You can't fool us, so if you expect to be respected as a real leader around here, you are going to have to meet our standards to gain our endorsement of your program.
“We do admit you seem to be quite eloquent and gracious in the way you can talk up front. Maybe you have just learned to be a really slick con man, or maybe you have learned some skills since you left here that we don't know about. Whatever the case is, let us be the judge of that because we can evaluate you better than anyone else who only met you in the last few months.”
Think about this situation from their perspective. A young boy in their town grows up completely obscure as far as popularity or unusual skills are concerned. He goes away for only a short time and suddenly rumors start pouring in of unusual activities very different than anything that ever remotely happened back home. Jesus had not practiced how to work miracles while growing up, honing 'skills' to put into practice when He would later travel to the big city to make a name for Himself. This is why it would be so easy to feel quite skeptical when nearly everything rumored about Him after He left seemed to have no connection with how He had lived only a short time previously, except for maybe the graciousness with which He treated and spoke with others.
The rumors of healing, and the even more disturbing rumors that some thought He might be God's Messiah, the promised deliverer for the nation of Israel, just didn't fit at all with everyone's mental expectations of a bold conqueror required to overthrow the forces of the mighty Roman Empire. They simply could not square their recollections of this humble child who never sassed anyone or caused trouble or even asserted His rights during the entire 25 years He had lived around them in Nazareth, with what would clearly be required of anyone wanting to fill the role of national Messiah and military general. Given the wide disparity between what they were hearing about Him after He left home with what they had known of Him all His life, they felt it was not unreasonable to see some hard evidence before they should be expected to throw their support behind His leadership.
In their minds as with most of us, leadership meant taking a bold stance, making big claims, inspiring others with grand plans of advancement of how they would overcome all obstacles as they whipped up the emotions of the masses to fall in line behind them to support and shore up enough power to overcome enemy forces seeking to suppress any rebellion. The only kind of leader they could imagine that could deliver their people from oppression (and the obvious oppression was clearly seen as the galling power of Rome that relied on brute force and intimidation) had to be someone with a plan that could overcome the 'forces of evil' through superior force for the good of God's chosen people on earth.
Their notion of what it meant to be a leader was little different than what Rome expected in a leader, or any other nation for that matter. Clearly a leader in our world is expected to be one who has some charisma, personality, one who can inspire the masses to follow their dream and cooperate with their strategic plans to overthrow all enemies. And winning must rely on the methods everyone uses – violent force, cunning strategy and political brilliancy. A respected and honored leader in this world earns peoples respect, first by inspiring them with glowing descriptions of the good life they will enjoy after winning the war against their enemies and then boldly asserting themselves by organizing everyone to create a formidable force to be reckoned with and feared by their enemies.
Jesus was keenly aware of this popular version of what it meant to be a leader. He described this repeatedly to His own disciples as the norm for what is expected of leaders in this world. The first word He used to describe worldly leaders means to dominate, to rule over implying that such leaders view themselves as more important than others by virtue of their superior abilities, personality and mental capacity. This is what we still expect of people who want our votes and our allegiance. We want them to tell us things that inspire us, to offer us promise of a better life and who will show the kind of assertiveness needed when they will meet the fierce opposition that will surely arise.
We also expect that our leaders will rely heavily on the philosophy of hierarchy firmly entrenched in this world to leverage their clout to advance up the ladders of power and influence and politically status. To do this they make grand promises of a better life, promises of a future where everything will be wonderful for the winners and that enemies will be subdued and punished for all the injustice and suffering they have brought to others. We want leaders to tell us what we want to hear even when deep inside we know it will be impossible for all those things to actually take place. But we expect those proposing to lead us to victory to promise us wealth, honor, prestige and a good life. In short, we want them to promise to be our benefactors, providers of all the good things we crave but don't yet have, or who will protect the good life for us that we already enjoy and keep others from taking what we have.
If these leaders can deliver on at least a high percentage of their promises the good life for us, then we don't mind trading off some of our freedoms along the way to give them the power necessary to give us what we want for ourselves. Yes, they might even turn into tyrant leaders, but that's still O.K. so long as they don't act as tyrants towards us, only toward others they might exploit for our benefit.
Is this not the sort of leadership we see all around us today? It doesn't take long to reflect about what every politician is expected to say to get elected to recognize this pattern described by Jesus. It is commonly assumed that it would be a surprise if any elected official actually followed through on all of their campaign promises. As a result we have come to care less about the honesty of those we elect to office as long as they give our agenda their highest priority, never mind everyone else. Selfishness, pride, greed and every form of deception is now standard procedure with most leaders today. But things were no different in Jesus' day either. That is why His hometown folks found it so incredulous that He would think to be a leader when clearly the way He acted growing up and His personality were the exact opposite of what everyone knew was needed for an effective leader.
Of course that is exactly the point Jesus was making. Leadership in the kind of kingdom He was coming to install would be the very opposite of what this world expects in a leader. That is why His hometown crowd became so upset with Him only a few minutes later that they were trying to assassinate Him by throwing Him off a nearby cliff. His leadership style, while pleasant and gracious, would never work in their world. This was exposed clearly after He touched a raw nerve with them by exposing their prejudice against foreigners, claiming that God sometimes favored outsiders over them.
Jesus' leadership style constantly put Him at odds with people around Him everywhere He went. He would apparently sabotage His own chances of success by suddenly offending the very people who were about to provide Him overwhelming support. He said offensive things to His hometown crowd at the wrong time causing them to switch from admiring fans to raging critics. He later said things considered very disgusting to the crowds reaching critical mass in support of Him that caused the vast majority of them to lose all desire to continue following Him. He once compelled His disciples to get in a boat and leave while He personally dispersed the crowds just as they were about to succeed in a conspiracy to make Him king by force against His will, only resulting in infuriating His disciples.
Time and again Jesus apparently botched glowing opportunities to strengthen His support base which not only puzzled His disciples but caused them to often question whether or not He was really qualified to be an effective Messiah. It was this very issue that in the end inspired Judas to arrange His betrayal, for Judas had become convinced that Jesus was simply too timid to be the bold leader He needed to be and with a little threat of coercion He might finally snap out of His timidity and step up to the plate to finally assume His role as king of the Jews. Tragically that plan backfired terribly which threw Judas into such a panic that he felt there was no option left but to kill himself.
It may be easy for us to think we understand all of this in hindsight. But I'm not so sure we yet get what Jesus was trying to convey to His disciples about real leadership. The way we establish leaders in our own church organizations only proves we still rely on typical notions of what is required in a leader similar to how the world does things. We look for charisma, skill, grand promises and many other things that we expect from our politicians. Yet Jesus emphatically told His disciples that this sort of leadership was completely foreign to how they were to relate to each other as equals and as family.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4 NRSV)
I am convinced that the servant leadership model is nearly non-existent today, at least in the way we run our institutions and promote people up ladders of assumed power, prestige and success. The world has so influenced our minds and culture that we simply cannot accept the way of humility that Jesus said was most important for the kind of leaders who would be valued in His family.
This is not to suggest that there are no humble leaders among us. That is not what I am saying. But our problem is that we have a confusing mix of leadership criteria which constantly undermines and neutralizes much of the effectiveness of God's work on earth. And I believe that until the entire system of hierarchy is completely discarded and the criteria clearly spelled out by Jesus becomes the sole guidelines for recognizing leaders, the Holy Spirit cannot work as it was able to do on the day of Pentecost and in following years for a time.
Until that time, it will remain true that a prophet will not be welcome in his hometown. Today we have even eliminated recognition of the existence of prophets who should be among us. We are reticent to even admit that such gifts are still available to the body of Christ. Maybe this is merely a symptom of how far we have strayed from the kingdom principles of Jesus, a kingdom where there is only one King, one head, and He does not act like kings of this world who govern on the basis of imposed authority and who rely on the power inherent in hierarchal top-down command structures to rule over.
Our King is humble, gentle, forgiving, kind, gracious and full of compassion and agape love. Our king is opposite from all notions of what we generally expect from a king, for He does not create a big stir to draw attention to Himself when He comes, but rather slips in as a servant unnoticed to minister to our needs and hangs around those who are the most despised and neglected among us just as He did before.
No wonder Jesus told the degreed professor of religion Nicodemus that it was impossible for him to even perceive the kingdom of heaven until he had a complete rebirth of his perceptions about reality. We all need that new birth encounter to endow us with the eyes of heaven and a heart and mind like Jesus who came to serve and not to be served, to heal others instead of looking to heal Himself, to honor His Father more than Himself, to even allow His life to be taken in a most cruel way in order that the true nature of God's love might be fully exposed in the way He responded to those torturing Him.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:3-11 NRSV)