In the days immediately prior to his entry into Jerusalem Jesus has to teach his disciples on several occasions about the nature of leadership in the Kingdom of God. He used analogies (become like little children), he warned against harming “the least of his followers,” he promised that all in the Kingdom had opportunity for greatness, and he used his own behaviour and heart for God’s people to define such leadership. Jesus used Greek terms such as “great one” or “first one” (9:36; 10:43-44), which might be roughly equivalent specifically to our word “leader.”
Jesus also engaged in some comparisons with “those who are esteemed to rule the nations” (10:42). In Matthew (20:25) they are “the rulers of the nations” and in Luke (22:25) “the kings of the nations.” Kingdom “leadership” was to be markedly different from that exercised by such national leaders. But in what way is it to be different? The common English translation that we find in the New International Version (“lording it over”) for the verb katakurieuō used in Mark 10:42 in these comparison has the connotation of abusive power or arrogant authority. But is this what the Greek verb means? Luke in the parallel passage (22:25) used the simple form of the verb (kurieuousin) to describe these rulers, implying that they exercised authority and power, without adding any sense that they were abusing this power in their leadership. He adds that they claim to be “benefactors (euergetai),” an epithet commonly found linked with rulers in inscriptions. Jesus may have been somewhat ironic in his use of this term. What in fact does the verb katakureuō mean that Mark and Matthew used to describe national leaders in this section of Jesus’ teaching?
It is the case that many national leaders were arrogant and abusive. For example, Josephus describes the reputation of Herod the Great, who governed Palestine when Jesus was born, as one who grasped power tightly, killing his own family members in order to retain his position. While he was a great builder, he also ruled Palestine with an iron hand, brooking no opposition. The picture Mark presents of Herod the Tetrarch, one of Herod the Great’s son, incorporates a sense of self-indulgence, preserving power at all costs, and controlled by sinful values with little regard for the care of the people. Jesus certainly is contrasting his standard of Kingdom leadership to this kind of leadership, which certainly was not shepherding God’s people well.
The addition of the prefixed preposition kata to a simple verb can add various nuances to the verb’s meaning. For example, in Luke 6:21 the beatitude says “blessed are those who mourn now, because you shall laugh (gelasete).” However, in 8:53 the mourners at Jairus’ house “ridicule (kategelōn) him [Jesus]” because they “knew” his daughter was dead, not asleep as Jesus claimed. Note how the preposition intensifies the sense of the verb, shifting the idea of laughing for joy, to laughing in a mocking manner. A second example occurs with the verb douloun. In Galatians 4:3 Paul claims that prior to their conversion the Christians in Galatia “were in slavery (ẽmetha dedoulōmenoi) under the basic principles of the world.” This is simple description of enslavement. However, in Galatians 2:4 he describes the action of some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to require Gentile Christians to become Jews as an attempt to “make us slaves (katadoulōsousin),” i.e. subjugate. In these two cases the nuance probably emerges from the preposition’s sense of ‘against’ or ‘down’.
Sometimes it is not exactly clear what nuance the prepositional prefix adds. Mark used the simple verb eulogein to describe the prayers that Jesus made in asking God “to bless” food (e.g. 6:41; 8:7; 14:22). But in 10:16 he employed the compound form kateulogei to define Jesus’ response to the children, whose parents wanted him to touch them. This is the only context in the New Testament where the compound form occurs. We know from the Markan context that Jesus’ response to the children is in deliberate contradiction to attempts by his apostles to prevent this activity. Mark alone among the Synoptic Gospels provides an expanded description of Jesus’ response: “he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.” However, did Mark deliberately use the compound form kateulogei to signify that “he really blessed them?” The detailed description suggestions some strengthening of the verbal idea is intended.
In the context of Mark 10:42 we also find the verb katexousiazousin (exercise authority over) used in parallel with katakurieusousin. The simple form of the verb exousiazein occurs in the Lukan parallel (22:25), which the New International Version translates as “exercise authority over” as it does in Mark 10:42. We get a sense of the simple form from its use in 1 Corinthians 7:4 where Paul, in describing marital responsibilities says that “the husband does not ‘exercise authority’ over his own body”, i.e. his wife has claims on him and has authority over his body. So why did Mark in the case of both of these verbs use the compound form, rather than, as Luke did, employ the simple forms? Are we to understand simple and compound forms as synonyms? Do the compound forms add a strengthened sense, i.e. their authority is real and applied fully? Or are the compound forms adding the nuance of abusive authority?
In Luke’s perspective Jesus is not emphasizing an abusive sense in his teaching, because the simple forms are used. Jesus defines the exercise of authority by national leaders, without commenting whether it is good or bad, and contrasts leadership in the kingdom as non-authoritative, i.e. diakonos, serving (22:26-27).
Some years ago K.W.Clarke published a short study on the meaning of katakureuō in the New Testament.1 He contended that the “correct translation of [kata] kyrieyein” is “to rule over, exercise lordship over, to be lord of, to master, to have dominion over.”2 However, there is no necessary nuance of oppression or arrogance implied. For example, in Genesis 1:28 God commands his newly created humans to “subdue (katakurieusate) the earth” and “rule (archete) the fish of the sea….” Human management of the earth at God’s command did not include arrogant or abusive authority. Rather the emphasis seems to be on complete authority or mastery over the earth.
If Clarke is correct in his analysis, then Jesus’ point as noted in Mark 10:42 is not a comparison between abusive or arrogant lordship and sanctified lordship. Rather Jesus is contrasting absolute lordship with Kingdom leadership which has nothing at all to do with lordship, but everything to do with serving, indeed becoming the slave of the other. Peter interprets Jesus’ teaching as leadership by example, such that the leader’s willingness to serve Christ and his body is the pathway to healthy shepherding.
- in your leadership role as a Kingdom agent, do you put more emphasis on exercising authority or leading by serving? Do the people within your church know your love for them, discern your passion to follow Jesus, and see you as an example to follow?
- what about your leadership as a Kingdom agent outside the borders of the church community? Does your commitment to Jesus require the same kind of leadership to be expressed, i.e. a leadership that is serving rather than authoritarian?