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During the final meeting of the semester in my introductory-level courses I always read aloud to my students Matthew 20:20-28, which tells of the outrageous request made by the mother of James and John to Jesus that he give her two sons the highest places of honour in his kingdom. This, of course, elicits protests from the other disciples, while Jesus himself indicates that his kingdom is about, not achieving human greatness, but practising servanthood.

One element of this passage puzzled me until recently. The New International Version renders verses 25-28 as follows:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (emphasis mine).

Jesus Washes the Disciples' Feet

Could it really be that Jesus is deprecating authority and thus commanding his followers to refrain from exercising it so they can be servants instead? How can we square this with Peter and Paul’s words in I Peter 2:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7 respectively? Might it be an example of semitic hyperbole along the lines of Luke 14:25-27? That was my conclusion.

Two years ago, however, I had the opportunity to sound out my esteemed friend and colleague, Al Wolters, about this passage, and especially the Greek word, ???????????????? (????????????), which is translated here as “exercise authority.” He pointed out that the word is rare, occurring only here and in the parallel passage in Mark 10:35-45. Apart from these, the word hardly occurs at all even outside the New Testament.

The construction of the word, however, may provide a clue to its meaning. The prefix ????- is added to ?????????, the latter of which means simply to exercise authority. The use of this prefix, especially when the object of the verb is rendered in the genitive case (?????), may imply that the compound verb has a negative connotation. This is certainly true of the immediately preceding verb, ??????????????? (???????????), which the NIV translates as “lord it over” and which is followed again by the genitive pronoun ?????. Thus it may be that the New Revised Standard Version best translates the passage as follows:
‘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.’ (emphasis mine)

Servanthood does not stand in contrast to authority, as some believe. One need not relinquish authority to be a servant. (In fact, I would argue that it is impossible for human beings created in God’s image not to have authority.) Those in authority, including kings, emperors, prime ministers, presidents and parliamentarians, are mandated by God to exercise their authority precisely as servants of God and neighbour. If they do not, then they abuse authority.

More on: Authority

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