Images of Servant Leadership

As our political campaigns draw near to election day, we hear much talk about leadership. While we tend to know it when we see it, leadership is hard to define and does not seem to follow any one pattern or formula. Today’s Scripture readings describe leadership as the service of others and portray Jesus as the best example of it. A series of images from Mark 10 and Hebrews 4 in today’s readings can help us grasp Jesus’ noble and paradoxical notion of servant leadership.

In Scripture “cup” and “baptism” are sometimes images of suffering. To drink the cup is to accept the reality of suffering and to do God’s will in the midst of it, as Jesus did in Gethsemane. To undergo a baptism is to be immersed in water and to suffer a kind of drowning. The point that Jesus makes to James and John is that those who follow the way of Jesus and seek to imitate his example of servant leadership must be willing even to suffer for others.


The images of leaders “lording” over others and making their authority felt stand in contrast to the leadership style of Jesus. Too often in our world, leadership involves a battle of wills and means exercising force over others and making others conform to the leader’s will. This all-too-prevalent pattern is far from Jesus’ ideal of servant leadership.

To be “the slave of all” appears at first glance to be the opposite of being a leader. Slavery was an accepted institution in the Roman empire and an integral part of the economic and social fabric of Greco-Roman society. To speak of a slave was not unusual. But to describe anyone as “the slave of all” made no sense. A slave had only one master. How can anyone be the slave of all, and how can such a person be a leader? Nevertheless, Jesus, as a master of paradox in word and deed, brings these two concepts together in his concept of servant leadership.

The image of “ransom” evokes the practice of buying someone out of slavery or kidnapping. Paying a ransom can sometimes bring that person back to safety and freedom. The image suggests that Jesus’ death on the cross was a kind of redemption or ransom that enabled us to gain freedom from sin and death and to share the intimate relationship that Jesus enjoyed with his heavenly Father. The idea is rooted in the Servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 53: “through his suffering my servant shall justify many.” The goal of Jesus’ life and death was not power over others but rather the service of others. As the one who came not to be served but to serve, Jesus provides the pattern and the measure of his own ideal of servant leadership.

To express the effects of Jesus’ servant leadership, the author of Hebrews uses the images of “sacrifice” and “priest.” Like other early Christians, he understood Jesus’ death on the cross to be an atoning sacrifice for sins. Because Jesus freely and willingly went to his death for us, he reasoned that Jesus can therefore be regarded as a priest (since priests customarily offered sacrifices). He further argued that unlike the Jewish high priests who offered sacrifices yearly on the Day of Atonement, Jesus, who offered himself once for all as the perfect sacrifice for sins, can be called the great high priest.

Like other New Testament writers, the author of Hebrews interpreted the passion, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as one great comprehensive event (the paschal mystery). In describing the last element he employs the image of Jesus passing through the heavens to return to his Father. Because of the paschal mystery, the author of Hebrews could exhort his confused and weary audience to hold fast to their confession of faith. His point was this: the one truly efficacious sacrifice for sins has been offered in Jesus’ death on the cross. Christ the great high priest has done his saving work, and the victory has been won once and for all. We do not have to do what the Jewish high priests did yearly on the Day of Atonement, because what Jesus did is more than sufficient. This is the author’s word of consolation and exhortation.

Today’s passage from Hebrews 4 allows us to understand better the results of Jesus’ practice of servant leadership. As one like us in all things but sin, Jesus can be sympathetic toward us and can serve still as our advocate and defender. And because of his servant leadership, we can approach God confidently and even boldly and expect to find mercy at what is now the “throne of grace.” All this flows from and through the servant leadership of Jesus.

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