Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Public Life of Jesus - Lesson 3, Part 2


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the sixth in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the public life of Jesus. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Allianceand the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

Part 2: The Management of Political Ambition

In three short years, Jesus of Nazareth took a motley crew of twelve young men and moulded them into the founding members and leaders of an organization, the Christian church, which has lasted more than twenty centuries and greatly affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This is an amazing accomplishment that prompts us to ask several questions. How did he do it? What exactly did he teach them? And what lessons are there for us from “the training of the twelve”—lessons especially relevant to preparing people today for Christian service, for public service, and for operating wisely and graciously at the interface of faith and politics? In seeking to answer such questions I have drawn heavily on a very insightful work by the 19th century Scottish clergyman and theologian A. B. Bruce entitled The Training of the Twelve.[1]

In an earlier article we examined how Jesus went about inculcating high ethical standards—in particular the supreme ethic of self-sacrificial love—into the hearts and lives of his small band of followers. In this article we want to examine how he dealt with their ambitions, in particular their political ambitions.[2]

The Ambitions of the Twelve

In almost all political systems, from the authoritarian one-party regime of communist China to the multi-party democratic systems of the West, personal political ambition plays a major part in initiating and sustaining the involvement of those desiring positions and offices of influence. Nor is personal ambition absent as a driving force among persons desiring positions of influence in religious and charitable organizations.

It should not surprise us therefore to find personal ambition thrusting itself to the fore among Jesus’ band of initial followers. And since Jesus was offering the “kingdom of heaven”—“kingdom” being a political concept and “heaven” being a spiritual one—it should not surprise us that their ambitions were a combination of the spiritual and the political.

On one occasion, for example, we are told that James and John, two of Jesus’ closest and most faithful associates, accompanied by their mother, came to him requesting that they be given key cabinet posts in the future government of the kingdom.[3] Needless to say, this open display of ambition by James and John stirred up indignation on the part of the other ten disciples.

On yet another occasion, while they were travelling along the road to Capernaum the disciples fell to arguing among themselves as to who would be “the greatest” in the future kingdom.[4] Apparently they sensed that this was an unseemly argument among the followers of one who was teaching them to put the interests of others ahead of their own, because they conducted it out of Jesus’ hearing and were embarrassed when he later asked them what they had been quarrelling about.

Even on the sad and dramatic occasion of the Last Supper, when Jesus addressed his disciples for the last time and predicted his own self-sacrificial death, it is recorded that, again, “a dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest.”[5] Ambition—how to advance themselves, how to be “the greatest”—always seemed to be not far from their minds no matter what the occasion or circumstance.

The Management of Personal Ambition

So how did Jesus deal with personal ambition on the part of his followers? In particular, political ambition combined with spiritual motivation—a potentially dangerous mixture and one often found among believers operating at the interface of faith and politics.

Significantly, he did not directly disparage the political ambition of the twelve. He did not renounce it as misguided or evil. Rather he sought to redirect their ambition away from the service of self and toward the self-sacrificial service of others. He did so in four ways.

First, he contrasted the “route to the top” in his kingdom with the politics of power and authority in the kingdoms of this world. This was his reply to James and John when they came to him requesting cabinet posts in his government and it was his response to the surfacing of political ambitions at the Last Supper. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them … but you are not to be like that.”[6]

Second, he repeated on each occasion when their unseemly and misdirected ambition surfaced, the same maxim in words that are as piercing and relevant to politically ambitious believers today as when he first spoke them, “Whosoever would be chief among you, let him be your servant.”[7] In other words, “You want promotion and advancement in my kingdom? You want to be chief—a leader, a cabinet minister, a first minister? Fine! Then go out and serve better and more self-sacrificially than anybody else.”[8]

Third, he offered himself and his work as the model of the self-sacrificial service of others that leads to advancement in his kingdom. On the occasion of the Last Supper it is Jesus who assumes the role of a servant, washing his disciples’ feet. “ ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’ ”[9] “I am among you [not as the Gentile rulers who lord it over others, but] as one who serves.”[10]

Fourth, Jesus offered humility as the quality most required to temper spiritually-motivated political ambition. On each occasion where it is recorded that the disciples quarrelled among themselves as to who would be the greatest, it is also recorded that Jesus did a most unusual thing. He interrupted their quarrelling by bringing a small child into their midst and declaring that unless they became like the child in its humility, innocence, and guilelessness they were not yet fit for service or advancement in his kingdom.[11] “Truly I tell you,” he says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[12]

Implications for Us

It requires a certain amount of ambition to enter and participate in the political arenas of our day, especially if one intends to put oneself forward as a candidate for public office. And if one is a Christian believer, that ambition may well be mixed with spiritual motivation such as a desire to bring ethical “salt and light” to the political arena.

If we are to be guided by Jesus, however, we can be sure that he will constantly redirect our ambition away from the service of ourselves and our party and toward the self-sacrificial service of others, as he guided the ambitious among “the twelve” so long ago.

When I was leader of a Canadian political party and Leader of the Official Opposition in our House of Commons, I had a small plaque on my office desk, given to me by my youngest daughter. It simply read, “Whosoever would be chief among you, let him be the servant of all.”

Some very ambitious people came to see me during those years, some of whom became cabinet ministers in the government of Canada, one even becoming Prime Minister. All ended up rendering genuine and substantial public service to the people of Canada and it is not my intent to disparage that service in any way. But I wonder to this day if their service might have been more effective if I had more strongly encouraged and rewarded those who were willing to pursue the “downward route to the top” as Jesus did and if I had more faithfully modeled that route myself.

Even today there is merit in making much greater use of the “child in the midst” technique employed by Jesus as a means of moderating and tempering environments where partisan ambition to be “the first and the greatest” is the dominant characteristic.

While the story of Jesus and the “child in the midst” is twenty centuries old, its capacity to challenge the roots of our present-day political quarrels and to redirect present-day political ambitions is still potent, if we choose to apply it.

Imagine the House of Commons during the daily Question Period—a cauldron of mistrust, ambition, and self-aggrandizement if there ever was one. The Members of Parliament, egged on by the media, are hurling loaded questions, clever retorts, and assorted insults across the floor as usual, all striving to make the evening news and secure the greatest possible attention and recognition for themselves and their parties.

But what if we were also to imagine that the space between the government and opposition benches was occupied, not by the mace and the tables of the house officers, but by scores of young children representing more truly than any Member of Parliament the future hopes of our country?

Would we politicians be able to act as we so often do in the face of “the child in the midst”? Would it be the presence and actions of the children that would be incongruous and out of place in the Commons, or would it be the words and actions of the Members that would now appear inappropriate and misdirected?

If only we would listen, Jesus of Nazareth has much to teach us—by word, by example, and through the tempering influence of “the child in the midst”—on the management of political ambition.

[1] The Training of the Twelve, or Passages Out of the Gospels Exhibiting the Twelve Disciples of Jesus Under Discipline for the Apostleship, by Alexander Balmain Bruce (reprinted in 1971 by Kregel Publications, a division of Kregel Inc and reproduced from the Fourth Edition, Revised and Improved, 1894 by A. C. Armstrong and Son).

[2] Preston Manning, Faith and Politics: Lessons in Leadership from the Public Life of Jesus, "The Training of the Twelve, Lesson 3 Part 1: The Inculcation of High Ethical Standards."

[3] Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45

[4] Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46

[5] Luke 22:24-27

[6]Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45; Luke 22:24-29

[7] Matthew 20:27 (KJV)

[8] No one modelled this “downward route to the top” for us better than Jesus. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11

[9] John 13:12-15

[10] Luke 22:27

[11] Matthew 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48

[12] Matthew 18:3-4

Source: Marketplace Institute

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