Jesus was popular for a while and then rejected. He seems never to have courted the crowd, only to have loved the ordinary people whom he saw to be mistreated, demeaned and manipulated by their leaders. Like a modern western electorate the people projected their hopes for a strong leader onto him for a short while. Success breeds success. The more people praise, the more the bandwagon starts rolling. But then it crashes as it did for him.
Modern populism, which is as fickle as any mob has always been, raises and pulls down its great leaders once they fail to deliver on its dreams. Love can turn to hate as quickly in politics as in romance.
Jesus shatters the myth of the strong leader who habitually needs to create a myth around and about himself. It is this myth that leads to self-corruption. Jesus is an incorrupt leader who does not pretend to be what he is not. He carefully and guardedly reveals the full truth about himself because it is so easily misquoted and exploited.
In today’s gospel, as we approach the climax to the story, we are given another angle on the central theme of betrayal. In the reading from Isaiah we are given an unexpected insight into the nature of the suffering servant who is to lead us to a better life through the paradoxes of failure and rejection. This insight sheds light on the mystery. Strange or offensive as it sounds, the great leader is a servant who suffers and a teacher who is a disciple.
The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue. So that I may know how to reply to the wearied, he provides me with speech. Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. The Lord has opened my ear.’
He has been telling us this about himself all along. ‘For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak… My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.’ This doesn’t sound like the Christ of the Sistine Chapel or the stern Pantocrator (‘Almighty’) of later imagination. It is the opposite of the great leader’s inflated ego.
Modern management theory tends to dismiss the great leader idea, preferring the more corporate and collaborative model. If any one model can, this one fits Jesus better. He wishes to empower those he leads and to show the way and blaze the trail by example rather than by coercion. He is the kind of leader who transforms the landscape he is working in, to open new horizons and to lead by a force of inspiration interiorised by his team rather than imposed from outside.
This is not how the church has always understood it; and it is not an easy model for anyone to follow. Power seduces us all. It is why the church is most like Jesus when it is most lacking in ego.
If we can hold onto this truth about him, we can confidently follow him wherever he leads.