The Unimportant Birth of the Insignificant Jesus
Consider two people you meet at an office Christmas party. The first one–the vice president in charge of marketing–is a good-looking, interesting, intelligent, and wealthy man. He has been quite successful in all that he has attempted, and he exudes the confidence and importance that follow from success. The second person busses dishes in the office cafeteria. He is plain-looking, boring, and even tedious. He is not too bright, makes minimum wage, lives an extremely modest lifestyle, has not been particularly successful at anything he has set out to do. What will your attitude be toward each of these men? Will you respect the dignity of the first man, acknowledging his value, while you look right through the other man, as if he did not even exist? If you wanted to pursue a relationship with one of the men, consider how you would choose between them. You can spend your time, your energy, and your focused attention on one or the other. Whom will you choose?
How do we measure the worth of another person? It is rather straightforward really, a simple calculation. We award points for a number of traits: being entertaining, funny, or interesting; being good-looking, attractive, appealing, or beautiful; being friendly, warm, caring, welcoming, nurturing, or mood-lifting; being charismatic, popular, famous, or a celebrity; being intelligent or capable; being influential or powerful; being wealthy; and, generally, we award points for utility–that is, for having anything to give to us that we want. But we also issue demerits–negative points–if another person lacks any of the traits mentioned above. The net score a person receives is the sum of his merit points minus the sum of his demerit points, and this net score is the measure of his worth to us.
The apostle Paul knew this game; he had formerly played it. But there came a point in his life when he refused to play it anymore. In II Corinthians 5:16 Paul writes, “Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh…” Formerly, Paul implies, he recognized others “according to the flesh”; that is to say, he evaluated the worth of others according to deeply ingrained standards and priorities which were shaped by his natural-born self-absorption. Or, to be specific, he evaluated others according to the values listed above: beauty, intelligence, wealth, fame, power, status, and influence. Paul valued those people who ranked high by the standards of his “flesh”–those who could give him something he wanted–but he had no interest in those who could give him nothing. And his value system–his sense of what he wanted–was awfully foolish, shortsighted, and ignorant. Nevertheless, he sought out and directed his attention to those people who could minister to his needs–as his foolishness and ignorance defined them. His writing in II Corinthians 5:17 reveals, however, that Paul no longer evaluates people that way, for “…if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
The truth to which Paul is pointing in this passage extends beyond the specific application he makes of it there. It extends to every aspect of our attitude toward others. The truth is this: if we are disciples of Christ, we award merit and demerit points on a whole different basis and for a whole different set of traits than we did formerly. “According to the flesh” we gave no points for integrity, wisdom, humility, compassion, and all the other facets of godliness and righteousness. At least, we gave no points for these traits in their own right. We might have awarded points for them to the extent that they benefited us, but we did not value these traits for their own sake. But now, as disciples of Christ, these are the traits we honor. And the traits we used to honor–beauty, wealth, fame, power–these have become irrelevant. We have ceased to give points for these. They are neither here nor there; they no longer register on our “worth-meters” one way or the other.
Or perhaps I am being too optimistic. Perhaps I should not assert that we do evaluate others by a different value system than formerly. Perhaps I should frame it as a question: Do we? As disciples of Christ, have we learned to view people through a different set of lenses? How did we assess the value of the middle-aged man we met the other day–unemployed, financially unsuccessful, plain-looking, not too bright, rather boring and tedious? Did we even stop to ask about his character, his integrity, his wisdom? Or has he already proved himself worthless? Perhaps we need not inquire any further. And what about the scruffy homeless man on the street? Did we write him off as worthless at first blush? Could anything have persuaded us that he was a man of real substance, that he had the light of wisdom in his eyes?
I draw dangerously close to a certain bastardized form of Christianity that Paul would never own: a distortion of our faith that makes every impoverished homeless person a saint by virtue of his poverty and unfortunate circumstances. Mother Theresa would have us believe that we can see the eyes of Jesus in the eyes of every leper and every abandoned orphan. At Christmas time, we are encouraged to romanticize the plight of all the unfortunate and downtrodden of the world by seeing them as exalted in the eyes of God. But this recklessly distorts Paul’s truth. When you look into the eyes of most lepers and abandoned orphans, you do not see the eyes of Jesus, you see the eyes of a child of the devil. When you peer into the hearts of most of the impoverished and disenfranchised people of the world, it is not love that you see, it is greed and hatred. Paul’s point is not that to be disenfranchised is necessarily to be godly. Rather, his point is that exactly the same thing can be said for all the wealthy, important, and successful people in the world as can be said for all the downtrodden: their eyes are the eyes of the devil, and their hearts are full of darkness and greed and evil. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” The successful and powerful fall no less short of God’s glory than the unsuccessful and weak. The packaging in which our lives happen to have been wrapped is irrelevant to the true measure of our worth as gifts whom the Father has given to his Son. The disciple of Christ knows this–both for his evaluation of himself and for his evaluation of others.
As for Christmas, God’s public relations department failed him badly. If you are going to do an incarnation and make it work, you have to do it right. God did not do it right. He sent the King of the Universe into history, and the vast majority of people did not even recognize Him. Dismally few gave Him the respect that was His due. But it is God’s fault. God just did not understand the game we play. He did not understand how we assess the value and importance of others.
When a friend of ours worked for the Kennedy family as a nurse, a hospital completely emptied a whole ward so that one of Jackie Kennedy’s children could have a tonsillectomy. When Prince Charles married Princess Diana, the whole world watched their wedding–a huge, expensive production with incredible pomp and circumstance. When Chelsea Clinton was moved into her dorm at Stanford, the entire university had to be inconvenienced while the campus was devoted to her and her parents for a whole day. What important people!
If only God had taken His cues from people like these. Here He is–at Christmas–bringing His Son, the King of the Universe, into existence. From God’s point of view, this is the single most significant event in all of human history. Does not such an event call for pomp and circumstance, expense, crowds, media coverage, inconvenience to others, “bigness”? We all know the drill: if something is important, it should be draped with all the tinsel and symbolism of importance. We all recognize the indicators of worth. If only God had done Christmas in a way that surrounded His Son with all the trappings of worth and significance, then people would have realized something important was happening. Then people would have sat up and taken notice.
We can visualize the way it should have been: Mary and Joseph are escorted by a huge army from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Bugles are blaring the whole distance. All the other travelers stand aside as the royal procession passes through. They stand to the side of the road, throw flowers before the procession, and bow before the pregnant mother of the King as she passes. At Bethlehem, the inn is emptied. The newborn King and Mary are given the whole inn to themselves while scores of ordinary travelers are forced to crowd into the manger. A huge choir of heavenly angels appears above the temple in Jerusalem and sings the announcement of the King’s birth to the high priest, the Sanhedrin, and Herod, the earthly king of the Jews. Then this same choir repeats its performance in Rome before the emperor himself. King Herod is forced to flee to Egypt for his life, being warned that he will be slain if he does not abdicate to the newly-born King. All the wise men from all over the world congregate in Jerusalem and do homage to this new King. Now that would have been a Christmas to reckon with! No one could have missed the significance of a Christmas like that. Furthermore, Jesus would have been educated in the finest schools in the empire and tutored by the most famous of the rabbis, and then He would have become the wealthiest man the world would ever know.
Alas! God did not do Christmas that way. Jesus’ mother quietly made her way to Bethlehem among a humble group of wayfarers. She was not distinguished from the others in the least. When there was no room at the inn, Jesus’ mother made do in a manger. Jesus and his family, not Herod, were forced to flee for their lives to Egypt. Of all the wise men in the world, only three showed up to appreciate the birth for what it was. Jesus grew up humbly in the inconsequential town of Nazareth. He had no formal education, no money, no credentials, no nothing–nothing, that is, except the appointment by God to be the King of the Universe. It is just like God: all substance, no symbolism; all substance, none of the trappings.
No wonder the world did not accept Jesus. Without the accepted indicators of significance and importance, the world did not recognize Him. By the rules of the worth game, Jesus scored very low. If He was really the King of the Universe, He would have scored high–very high! But he did not. He presented himself as an unimportant person and gave no recognizable indication that He had anything of value to offer us. No wonder we ignored Him. We always ignore unimportant people.
In the II Corinthians (5:16-17) passage I mentioned earlier, Paul links the new-found standards by which he judges others to his ability to evaluate Jesus rightly: “Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature….” At first, Paul saw nothing of any importance in the man Jesus; by his typical measure of a person’s worth, Jesus had none. But something happened to Paul. At a crucial point in his life, the standards by which he measured people’s worth were turned upside down. When that happened, Jesus’ worth suddenly skyrocketed. Jesus’ claim to be King of the Universe suddenly became plausible, even compelling, and Paul believed. Paul could never have come to see the merit of Jesus’ life and deeds had his eyes not been opened to a whole new way of seeing life and people. In Paul’s own words, he had to become a “new creature” before he could rightly grasp the significance and importance of who Jesus was. Becoming a new creature not only affected the way Paul saw Jesus, it also affected the way he saw everyone and everything.
Christmas, therefore, presents us with a very important challenge. If we can continue evaluating everyone around us “according to the flesh”–that is, like those in the world around us who measure a person’s worth and significance by superficial standards like wealth, success, fame, popularity, intelligence, and good looks–then we have not become “new creatures.” And if we have not become new creatures, then we have never come to acknowledge the real Jesus as our King–the Jesus lying in unimportance in a manger. And if we have never acknowledged the real Jesus as King, then we are not His brothers, destined for life in His Kingdom. That is a serious challenge. May we take this challenge to heart as we contemplate an apparently unimportant baby lying in an obscure manger on the day of his birth nearly two thousand years ago.
Copyright December 1999 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.