Should We Be Serving or Leading?

Judges 9.8-15 is known as the parable of the trees. I see the essence of this parable as serving and not be being served. This is just how Jesus described himself in Matthew 20:28, saying, “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Notice that the parable starts with the trees went out to anoint a king over them. In Jesus’ day, Israel was on the lookout for a king that would stand up to the Roman empire. They wanted a king that would win their freedom back for them. John 6.15 says that when Jesus perceived that the crowd of 5,000 wanted to make him king by force, he withdrew to the mountain by himself.

The great mass of people want a king. They will make someone a king over them by force if they have to. The people will even try to make God a king over them by force, forcing God into their own image of what a king should do for them, which is typically fighting and killing their enemies.

The trees command the olive tree, “Reign over us.”  But, the olive tree says, “Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?”

The trees command the fig tree, “Reign over us.” But, the fig tree says, “Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?”

The trees command the vine, “Reign over us.” But, the vine says, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?”

Each tree – the olive, fig, and vine – refuses to reign over the people. They refuse to be served by the people. These trees refused to be served because they were compelled to serve instead. Each of these trees produced fruit that blessed God, gods (the powers and principalities in the New Testament), and men. These fruits had to be eaten, consumed, by others so that their essence – abundance, sweetness, and cheer – could serve them just as Jesus said we had to eat his flesh and his blood and drink the living water that he gave so that he could serve us.

Each of these trees refused to “hold sway” over the trees. Nuwa is the Hebrew word for hold sway. It also means to tremble, to roam around, to cause to move and fro, to make unstable, to shake up, to disturb. By continuing to serve by offering their fruit, the olive, fig, and vine trees refused to make others tremble, needlessly move about, unstable, or disturbed.

Almost every person I think about in leadership, particularly governmental leadership, eventually succumbs to “holding sway” over the people who are know there to serve them instead of the leader serving the people. It’s largely true of the church as well. Just watch how often you see leaders being served – being fed, given the special seats of honor, etc. – instead of serving others.

Finally, trees command the bramble, “Reign over us.” The bramble has no fruit to offer the people. It can only offer that the people take refuge in its shade. But, the bramble is a bush. It doesn’t have much shade to offer. Because the bramble is relatively low to the ground, to get in that shade would require on to get low and probably be right up against the bramble’s branches. But, those branches have thorns. So, to get in the bramble’s shade you are probably going to get pricked by its thorns. And, the bramble will devour you if you don’t make you offer of it being king in good faith, perhaps total and complete power. Doesn’t this sound like many, if not most, of the people we tend to put in power ad the people that actually want to be in power?

So, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be servant, and whoever would be first among you must be our slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It’s not about leading, exercising authority over others, getting people to go a certain direction.

It’s about serving, meeting people’s needs, and letting them choose the direction they should go.

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