Can I ask you a personal question? And be totally honest. Do you think of yourself as a successful person? And, more importantly, what criteria do you use to measure success? In other words, how do you spell success? I ask this question because society spells success with a four-letter word, f-a-m-e. Or, a five-letter word, p-o-w-e-r. Or a six-letter word, w-e-a-l-t-h. However, Jesus spells success with a truly radical eleven-letter word: s-e-r-v-a-n-t-h-o-o-d.

Jesus shared this definition of success and greatness with his disciples at an unusual time. On a long walk from northern Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples in graphic detail that “they will mock me, spit on me, flog me and kill me.” Imagine hearing those words from someone you love.

But in that poignant and emotional moment, two of his disciples, James and John asked Jesus an incredibly insensitive question: “May we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” Instead of caring about their Master, James and John cared about themselves! They wanted the seats of power in the Kingdom! The other ten disciples didn’t care about Jesus either…they were indignant at James and John because THEY wanted those seats of power for themselves! Nobody seemed to care that Jesus was facing the end of his life!

Jesus seizes this teachable moment and gives his disciples a new definition of greatness and success. He tells them that power, prestige or who sits next to whom are not important to God! God values service!

Jesus’ radical thought is that our titles, positions and careers are not pedestals for our self-aggrandizement, but platforms for service. This is a life-changing concept! So…the question is not how many boards do we serve on? But rather, how can we use our service on those boards to make an impact in the world? The question is not how much influence or notoriety do we have in our jobs, but rather how can we use our influence to serve others and open doors for them? The question is not how much money do we make, but rather how can we use our money to make an impact in the lives of others? Do you see the difference? People who value platforms rather than pedestals spell success s-e-r-v-a-n-t-h-o-o-d!

Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, spelled success as Jesus would spell it. Years ago, author Jonathan Kozol was writing an article on the impact of role models on poor children in America. He went to Mott Haven, in the upper Bronx in New York City, which was the poorest congressional district in the USA. As Kozol interviewed the children who were growing up in that tough neighborhood, he discovered that their heroes were people like basketball player, LeBron James, actors Halle Berry, and Denzel Washington, and singer, Beyoncé. And…one of their most admired heroes was a man they had seen many times on television… Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Jonathan Kozol contacted each of these celebrities to ask if they would be willing to write a letter or make a video for the children in Mott Haven, urging them to stay in school and not drop out in the 6th grade, as many did. Kozol said he would read the letters and show the videos to the children. Maybe it would help one kid to stay in school.

Although several celebrities agreed to write the letters or make videos, only one said that he would come himself… Fred Rogers! When Mr. Rogers got off the Number 6 subway in Mott Haven, Jonathan Kozol was there to meet him… along with a young boy named Miguel, who idolized Mr. Rogers. As Mr. Rogers walked up the steps from the subway, Miguel stuck out his hand and said, “Mr. Rogers… welcome to my neighborhood!” Kozol said that they children sat up a little straighter when they heard Mr. Rogers tell them that they had potential; that they could graduate from high school; they could go to college and be leaders in the community…doctors, teachers, social workers, or business leaders! The children had HUGE SMILES on their faces as Mr. Rogers spoke with them. The hope in the room was palpable.

Mr. Rogers did not use his influence or notoriety as an actor as a pedestal for his own self-glory. He used it as a platform for service. Mr. Rogers spelled success s-e-r-v-a-n-t-h-o-o-d. How do WE spell success?

Reflection Questions

  1. Can you think of a servant leader who has impacted your life in the recent past?
  2. How might we be a servant leader in the place where we are today?