HIERARCHY is problematic for us. Whenever people are bound together by blood or ideology, why should some end up mattering more than others? In ancient societies, telling people how grand your forefathers were would get you elected. To us it is at best irrelevant, at worst nepotism: a form of cheating.
Criteria change, but hierarchy persists. Egalitarian in principle, we are also acutely sensitive to our place in a pecking order. In meetings of ministers, there are sensitivities at the boundaries, whether between stipendiary and self-supporting, or lay and ordained. If we say that, in today’s Church of England, status does not matter, we are kidding ourselves.
The Christ of Hebrews seems a long way from the carpenter of Galilee. Hierarchy here is unmistakable. High priests are more than “ordinary” priests, but less than one who is high priest “once for all”. Of all the paradoxes bound up in the Christ-event, none is more shocking than today’s: that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.
Service has been a touchy subject in royal circles recently, with statements on the one hand that “responsibilities and duties . . . come with a life of public service,” and on the other that “we can all live a life of service. Service is universal.”
Whenever we read our Bible, we should be asking ourselves what category of service is being referred to. It is a particular issue in Jesus’s parables, where often the word translated into English as “servant” should, in fact, be “slave”. That is, in Greek, a doulos: someone who does not have the rights of a human person, but is legally a piece of property. Conflating these categories must once have made the hierarchies of domestic service seem divinely instituted.
Human beings are not all created equal. Some are born into a life of servitude or enslavement. Others are born free from every anxiety about food, shelter, or clothing. Hierarchies are harder to define now that we pay lip service to the equality of all, but it seems that we cannot help creating and recreating them.
In the New Testament, slaves and slavery are mentioned more than other kinds of servants and service. In this Gospel, Jesus is not talking about slavery: a slave has no choice, no right to an opinion or feelings. A servant (diakonos), on the other hand, can refuse, argue terms, or — in the last resort — walk away.
The first New Testament reference to this kind of service is in Mark’s brief account of Jesus’s temptation. When we think of the fuller version in Matthew, verse 12 of today’s psalm jumps out at us; for it is the verse quoted by Satan when he tempted Jesus (Matthew 4.6). But Mark alone records that, after Jesus’s temptation, angels came and “ministered” to him. This “ministry” (or “service”) is not slavery. It is diakonia.
So, when Jesus makes his statement about the Son of Man, we can be certain that he does not choose the way of the cross because he has to. He had called attention to a likeness between himself and the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. It could not be clearer that he expects his chosen path to lead him to ignominious death (Isaiah 53.12). His circumstances, upbringing, sense of self and duty — all these may have influenced his choices. But they are still choices. Here, he chooses to serve rather than be served. Ever since his choice was validated through death, resurrection, and ascension, we have been responding to that act of supreme service by serving him in return, with worship.
This is not about logic, but it is about love. Being loved makes us want to be loving. Some of us, not born with kindly hearts or charitable instincts, learn to serve others because we learn first that Jesus loves us, and that our greatest joy is loving him. Love teaches us to be servants of one another.
The author of Hebrews makes a point of saying that even high priests have to atone for their own sins before they manage the rituals that neutralise the sins of others. The key thing about the service that Jesus undertakes as Son of Man is, once again, that it costs him something. He could not have ransomed and redeemed us through being our servant in his spare time.