Jesus knew all about hierarchy, born a Jew in Judea under brutal Roman rule. He worked as what is translated as a carpenter (Greek: tekton), but was more likely a stonemason, probably employed to build the large public amphitheater near Nazareth, having to obey the supervisor, who obeyed the architect, who obeyed the commissioner of the project. Jesus knew about the power of the high priest and the Sanhedrin, though the high priest at the time of Christ’s preaching was appointed by the Romans, not the hereditary heir descended from Aaron, prescribed in the Law of Moses.
The first anti-hierarchical thing Jesus did was at age 12 when his parents rebuked him for terrifying them by staying in Jerusalem to study the Law, he declares to his parents: “Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?” But the gospel says he went him with them and was obedient to them.
Next is the cleansing of the temple, an almost suicidal casting of the money-changers out of the temple: “You have made my father’s house a den of thieves.” The people who ran the temple in Jerusalem, ultimately the high priest, had created a system by which, if you wanted to sacrifice according to the Law of Moses you had to go through the money-changers, then buy a wildly over priced animal. They had created a multi million dollar enterprise, creating fabulous wealth for themselves. And they had hired temple guards to make sure nobody opposed them. This act was more dangerous than Martin Luther King’s march into Selma.
The people wanted to crown him king to lead them in a rebellion against Roman rule, he refused. When his disciples squabbled about who was the greatest or most favored Jesus placed a little child among them. “Of such are the kingdom of heaven.” “Don’t sit at the best seat when you go to a banquet. Sit farther down the table, then the host will move you up higher.” “The big shot holy people love to give to the poor in public so everyone can see them. They already have their reward. But if you give where nobody can see you, your Father in heaven will reward you.” “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Lots of parables about servants and kings, all in hierarchical relationships.
And then Jesus’ last act before being arrested and put on trial: he strips down to the uniform of a servant or slave, the last thing a power broker would do, and then kneels and washes his disciples’ feet. An act so humiliating that Peter objects. Jesus insists. And when he is done he asks them, “What did I do?”
Jesus’ last act is to be the second Adam, nailed up naked until he is dead. He has told his disciples many times that he will die for them, be crucified, and they tell him, “No!” This is not the act of any powerful leader up until this time. Perhaps courageous leaders in the past had been sacrificial in leading their armies into battle against oppressors, even at terrible odds. But no leader sacrificed himself by offering himself for crucifixion.
What implications does this have for us today? Christian ministries that have a huge hierarchy are simply not Christian. Any denomination or faith community with a pyramidal hierarchy is not Christian. Any congregation that has a rigid hierarchy is not Christian.
Even our families need a total over haul. The leader must be the servant.
Ask yourself how many demands you make in a given week. How could those demands be changed to polite requests? How could you lead by example? How could you start ignoring hierarchies that get in the way of justice, mercy and peace?