Selecting leaders is one of the most difficult challenges that every society or political entity or organization must confront. Hereditary succession, military victory in civil war, political machinations, democracy – all these means have been utilized as ways to choose political leaders – with varying degrees of success or failure.
This challenge of finding the right leadership occupies a lot of attention in the bible as well. Who is going to lead the people of God? A patriarch? What the Old Testament calls a Judge? A king? Or what the New Testament calls apostles and then elders? How are leaders to be chosen? What qualities should the leader have? Indeed, perhaps the most dramatic scenes in the bible concern the call of the prophets or leaders of the people. That’s the way leaders are chosen in the bible – they are called.
Scripture scholars have stumbled onto the idea that the biblical call of the prophet or leader fits into a kind of literary pattern, a common narrative flow. That is, in the bible most leaders are chosen in pretty much the same way, even if their personalities and talents or the situations at hand can be quite different. The common features of the call reveal a lot about how the bible thinks of leadership – and how God deals with his people.
In just about every story of a call of a prophet or a leader there is a crisis to be faced – like the people are in slavery or Israel is threatened by invasion. Someone is chosen, but not by the people so much as by God. “The word of the Lord came to me,” the prophet will proclaim. When first approached, the one chosen raises objections, but receives assurance from God. “Have no fear, I will be with you,” God says to the complaining candidate. And then, frequently enough, some sign is offered confirming the commission.
I don’t have much in common with the great leaders who were chosen in the bible, like Moses or Jeremiah or St Paul. But there is one aspect of their experience of being called that I can relate to. It’s their expressions of hesitancy, or even refusal.
We can identify the five objections most commonly raised by our candidates for biblical leadership. See if you can relate to any of these.
The first objection is INCOMPETENCE. For example, Moses complained: “I’ve never been a very good speaker.” And even more pointedly, Jeremiah said, “I don’t know how to speak.”
The second objection is SINFULNESS. Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips.” And Peter knelt at the feet of Jesus and asked Jesus to leave him alone because, Peter said, “I am a sinful man.”
The third objection relates to the timing problem: WRONG AGE – TOO YOUNG OR TOO OLD. Jeremiah insisted that he was too young. “I am a child,” he said. But the 99 year old Abraham was not too old to pack up and move to a new land and conceive a child even though his poor wife, Sara, laughed when she learned of the plan. And Zechariah had the same problem with old age when he was told he was going to father John the Baptist.
The fourth objection is LACK OF DESIRE. The classic example here is the prophet Jonah who decided to take a slow boat to China to escape having to preach about God’s mercy in down town Nineveh. Jonah hated the Ninevites.
The final objection is THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF THE TASK. A dramatic example is the task assigned to Moses. God says to Moses: “I send you to Pharaoh to bring the sons of Israel, my people, out of Egypt.” On the face of it, it’s a preposterous assignment. But the biblical classic impossible task is the assignment Mary receives in Luke’s gospel: You will conceive and bear a son … who will be called Son of God.”
All these objections that our candidate leaders voice are essential to the story. The objections call attention to the weakness of the human instrument and the consequent need for biblical leaders to rely only on God and not on their own abilities. The bible makes it obvious that the success of leadership is the result of God’s intervention, not human agency or ingenuity.
Of course, Jesus profoundly altered the leadership paradigm when he totally inverted the corporate ladder, so to speak, and put the leader on the bottom as the servant of all. So when Jesus called leaders, he really called them to be servants, just like him. But he didn’t use the word “lead.” He called people not so much to lead, as to follow, to follow him in service. “I came to serve,” he said, “not to be served.”
But all the classical objections that the biblical writers always insert into the call narratives apply all the more to the specific invitation that Jesus extends, to discipleship, and hence to us. For the church teaches that we are all called to discipleship, cllled through baptism to be followers of Jesus, that is, to serve. And we respond, at least in the first instance, like classic biblical heroes. That is, we respond with so many ostensibly “sensible” objections.
I don’t have the necessary talents. I’m not that holy or religious. It’s the wrong time in my life to undertake some kind of special task. And frankly, there’s not that much that attracts me in this call to service. Besides, the whole enterprise is just some romantic dream and utterly impractical. That’s not the way the world works. Ignatius would probably say that all these sentiments sound suspiciously like the deceits of the evil spirit. They are temptations that draw us from the good. So we should turn them around, as did the biblical leaders of old. We should listen to the words of the Lord, “I am with you.” “Do not be afraid.” “Trust in the power of my name.” As St Paul explained so beautifully, our weakness can be turned into a strength because we are only servants. And so, when we are called to service, we can rely on a power way beyond ourselves.
Fr. Walter Modrys, SJ is a Jesuit of the NY Province, recently serving as the Treasurer. He was the pastor of Saint Ignatius Loyola Parish in New York City for nineteen years. Fr. Modrys recently served as Liturgist and homilist at the IVC New York Metro Della Strada Awards Reception. This blog reflection is a reprint of his homily.