Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their 250 stooges of reputation were up in arms. The text does not say exactly why, and, for the purposes of this article, it doesn’t really matter. In the course of their complaint they said to Moses and Aaron, Ye take too much upon you. The Hebrew this phrase translates is very compressed, consisting of only two words. An over-literal translation would come out something like, much to you. In the opinion of Korah and his friends, the authority of Moses and Aaron was both excessive and oppressive.
What I found interesting, as I worked through the chapter, is that Moses responds with exactly the same charge, much to you, sons of Levi. The accusations were the same—but the perceptions of leadership were very different. Moses consistently saw his leadership as a tremendous responsibility, even, at times, a burden from which he begged to be relieved. Korah, in contrast, looked at the authority that God had given Moses and envied it. He saw it as a privilege that Moses and Aaron were withholding from those (himself for instance) who were equally worthy of it. A conflict was inevitable.
We live in an anti-authoritarian world. No position is sacred, unless, perhaps one considers the newly sovereign task of being perpetually offended by positions to itself be a ‘position.’ Yet the burden of leadership hasn’t gone away. Fathers are still called to lead their families. Mothers are still called to guide their homes. Pastors are still called to shepherd God’s flock. Christians are still called, even on a day like today, to be the salt and light of their communities.
On the other hand, leadership is something that is always subject to abuse. The reason why the anti-authoritarianism of our society is so plausible to so many is because, all too often, leaders do in fact take too much upon themselves. When a position of authority is seen as an opportunity for exaltation, those who grasp for that authority are seldom worthy of exercising it. Furthermore, no one, no matter how initially worthy or legitimate their position, is immune to the danger of being corrupted by the power they have been called to wield.
This is where the contrast between Korah and Moses is so instructive. Moses never took the authority he had been given for granted. He was sometimes overwhelmed by the greatness of the task—but he was never overwhelmed by his greatness for it. Korah was a Levite. As Moses reminded him, he had already been given a special place of service among the people of God. It may not have been the place that he wanted, but that did not make it any less of an honor. Yet he despised it. He wanted more, and because he wanted more, he looked with greedy eyes and grasping hands at the position that God had given to others. His tragic fate was well deserved.
True leaders focus on the greatness, the muchness, so to speak, of the responsibilities they have already been given. Their eyes are on the field they have to till, not the ladder they are trying to climb. The spiritual sons of Korah focus on the muchness that they think those just ahead of them are withholding from them, even while the jobs they have already been given are left half-done. To wield authority well, focus on the greatness of your task, not your greatness for it.