15-7 The Value Of Persons
The way Biblical history is written contrasts strongly with the
way secular history is written, focussing as it does on mega movements
of peoples, international events etc. Biblical history- and the
records of Israel's early history are classic examples- is articulated
in the last analysis through the story of individuals. Reflect on
how the account of Isaac's family is prefaced by the note: "These
are the generations of Isaac" (Gen. 25:19). We expect a genealogical
list- but instead we get the accounts of human lives. That history
was the 'generation' of Isaac. In this we see a reflection of how
God views history- the growth, actions, thoughts, struggles, spirituality
and passing of persons. The value placed by God upon individuals is seen by the way in which He inspired Biblical history to be written. Humanly written history tends to focus upon megatrends, the glories and successes of a nation as a nation. God's history focuses upon people. And the Bible is hardly a history of glorious successes- it's a record of one human failure after another, endless rounds of attempt and failure, a historical path that leads God from one disappointment to another with us. Human history records human failure only as it were as a foil, a context, to the successes of the heroes. God's heroes are the lowly, the poor of this world rich in faith like Hannah and Mary, and the megatrends of society's history are passed by. But this is how much He values people on an individual level.
One of the major themes of the Lord's teaching in the sermon on
the mount was the need to respect others; to see the value and meaning
of persons. Indeed, it can rightly be said that all sin depersonalizes
another person. Sin is almost always against persons. Relentlessly,
ruthlessly, the Lord drives deeper, and yet deeper, into the very
texture of human personality in demanding that, e.g., we are not
even angry with others, lest we effectively murder them. To say
" Raca" to your brother was to commit sin worthy of condemnation,
He taught (Mt. 5:22). " Ra-ca" was the sound made when
a man cleared his throat to spit, and it was a term of abuse in
earlier Semitic languages. To despise your brother, to disregard
his importance as a person, was to be seen as an ultimate sin. In
this light we should seek to avoid the many terms of abuse which
are so common today: " a right idiot" etc. The Law taught
that one should not curse a deaf person. Think what this really
means. Surely the essence of it is that we should never be abusive,
in any form, to or about anyone, even if it is sure that they will
never know or feel our abuse. The Law also taught that a man must
not be over punished, or else, if you did this, you considered him
“light” (Dt. 25:3 Heb.). The weight of persons, the immense meaning
attached to them, is not accepted by us if our judgment of them
is too harsh or severe. The Hebrew word for "care" also
means "reverence". Thus in 2 Kings 4:13 Elisha speaks
of how the Shunamite woman 'cared' (AV) for him, or 'reverenced'
him (RVmg.). To reverence someone is to care for them. Care therefore
comes out of a respect / reverence for the person. If we respect
persons for who they are, we will care. Care in that sense can't
in any sense be properly done or shown if it's simply from a sense
of duty, because we're paid to do it, because we might get some
benefit from doing so, etc.
True Christianity places a remarkable value on the worth of the
individual person. Even in the Old Testament, God had spoken of
gathering His people “one by one” (Is. 27:12). The ten commandments are unique amongst the legal codes of ancient peoples, in that they speak of Divine commands given to individuals- "thou", you singular, shall do this, or not do that. God shows in this crucial covenant statement that He wished for personal obedience from every one of His people, not just certain sacrifices offered by representatives of the tribe. To deal with another
person as a slave or chattel, to not treat a person as a person,
was seen even under Mosaic Law as meriting the death penalty- for
it was as if a person had been killed by treating them like that
(Dt. 24:7 RVmg.). Even a criminal was not to be overly punished,
"lest your brother be degraded in your sight"
(Dt. 25:3)- he was still to be treated as a person, and nothing
should be done to him which would make the punishers think too lowly
of that person. The Old Testament reflects that God has a heart
for all humanity- not just Israel. Nineveh was a great city to
God, and it grieved Him that it might have to be destroyed
(Jonah 3:3)- He even was sensitive to the plight of the animals
there. The sensitive heart of God becomes all the more sensitive
to us, His chosen people. Jesus speaks of how a person can lose
their place in the Kingdom as a person losing or forfeiting their
own self; He was thereby teaching that a place in the Kingdom was
possessing one’s own real self (Lk. 9:25 RV). If we too perceive
this focus on the worth of the person, we will not consider anyone
as merely an " ordinary" person. There is no such thing,
no such person. In my own search for a partner, and probably in
yours too, I have observed the sense that it has to be someone special,
not just one of the crowd, someone different from all those
normal ones. This attitude has some wrong implications. If we perceive
the meaning of persons, their value, we won’t
consider those near and dear to us as somehow unique when compared
to the mass of others. Because we all look vaguely similar, it’s
tragically easy to forget that our bodies, genetic structure and
especially our minds, the way we think, the way we are, is totally
unique… and we each therefore have a set of possibilities which
no other human being has. These are our ‘talents’- which we can
use to glorify God in some unique manner.
Everyone is special, nobody is like anyone else. This is how God sees His children,
and we should reflect this perspective. It is this which will make
us arrestingly different from the people with whom we daily walk.
We will cry out with Jeremiah: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that
pass by?”, unmoved and lost as they are in their own petty issues
(Lam. 1:12). As the concrete of my generation’s “progress” has hardened,
so our hearts have hardened too. People are now desperately looking
for real and meaningful grace and care from people, and
yet they find none. In all soberness and reality I can say that
there are so many ripe for conversion, everywhere, if they see in
us a heart that bleeds for them with no motive other than that of
pure grace. Because we all look vaguely similar, it’s tragically
easy to forget that our bodies, genetic structure and especially
our minds, the way we think, the way we are, is totally unique…
and we each therefore have a set of possibilities which no other
human being has. These are our ‘talents’- which we can use to glorify
God in some unique manner.
The Lord’s parables all feature an element of unreality, which flags attention to His essential point. The shepherd who left the 99 and went after the lost one was an unusual shepherd. Common sense tells us that one should think of the good of the majority, not max out on the minority. We invest effort and resources in ways which will benefit the maximum number of people. But the Lord turned all that on its head. The heart that bleeds cannot disregard the minority, however small or stupid or irritating it or they may be. For people matter, and the heart that bleeds will bleed for every single one. The parables so often allude to contemporary Jewish conceptions of grace, and show how God's grace is so far beyond them. The Father is watching for the return of the prodigal, even while the son was "far off" (Gk. makron); and this is the same word used about the "far (Gk. makros) country" where the son was (Lk. 15:13,20). The Divine eyesight sees the person who is far off in sin, and longs for their return. This was quite contrary to all Jewish and human notions of showing grace to those who return - after they return. There was a contemporary Jewish story about a son who wished to return to his father; and the father sends a message to him saying "Return as far as you can and I will come the rest of the way to you" (1). The Lord's parable showed how the care of the Father for His children is so far more than that. And He is there watching billions of cases, simultaneously... such is the passionate heart of God for the individual. There is a well known statement of John Thomas, to the effect that “God manifestation, not human salvation” is God’s essential purpose. Only in some sense is this true; God’s concern is truly with individuals, with their healing and radical reformation as persons, and He gave His Son for our individual salvation. The concept of God manifestation should not lead to an eclipsing of the value and meaning of the individual person.
It can be that we mutter " Typical!" on observing someone’s behaviour,
that we categorize groups of our brethren, types of people, as "
all the same" . In this way we may write off masses of people
as disinterested in the Gospel or true spirituality- when if only
we would perceive them as persons, we would see their potential
and their desperate need. And thereby we will be the more motivated
to preach and minister to " all men" , not just those
we perceive as interested. Both psychologically and philosophically,
we have what has been termed a “craving for generality”
(2), and a desire to observe ‘family resemblances’ in
people (3). Once we grasp the huge value of the individual, we’ll
at least be aware of these tendencies we have to categorize people,
to put them in general groups… and struggle against those
tendencies, towards perceiving every individual as a unique person.
Exhausting and demanding as this is, it’s the teaching and
example of our Master.
The love of Jesus was ever seeking to appreciate the perspective
and motivations of others; He could even ask for His crucifiers
to be forgiven " for they know not what they do" . His
love and sensitivity must become ours. We must be substantially
transformed in the depths of our being, in the intricacies of our
thoughts, feelings and dispositions, until we are permeated with
the love that Christ had. The Law of Moses sought to inculcate a
culture of care and sensitivity to others, and this spirit was fulfilled
ultimately in the life and death of the Lord. The continued stress
on not cooking a kid in its mothers milk was surely to teach sensitivity
to the feelings of the mother goat- to encourage the Israelite to
feel for others, even if they are animals, and seek to enter something
of their feelings. And the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of God
extends even to His plant creation: “…thou shalt not cut [some trees]
down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged
of thee?” (Dt. 20:19 RV). And how much more sensitive is
the Father to humankind!
The heart that bleeds for others will not merely feel ‘sorry’ on an emotional level. We will realize how the sufferings and experiences of others are not just events that evoke our sympathy. We will realize that suffering can be ‘rejoiced’ in " because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured his love into our hearts" (Rom. 5:3-5). We will perceive that suffering is intended, and it is intended to produce something. The heart that bleeds, the mind that perceives this truth, will not make dumb responses to others’ misfortunes; we will not advocate grin-and-bear-it, or act-tough-like-nothing-happened. No trace of those attitudes is to be found in the Lord’s response to human suffering. We will believe the triumphant truth of Romans 8, "that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" . Those " all things" are defined later as trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger. But through all these things, true hope takes shape within us, " a hope that does not disappoint" . We will know this from our own experience, and our concern for others will be motivated by a desire to bring spiritual good out of their present evil experiences.
The Lord’s high value of persons is reflected in how He taught His followers
to not resist evil. A poor man had only two garments- an outer one,
and an inner one (Dt. 24:10-13). Underneath that, he was naked.
Yet the Lord taught that if you had your outer garment unjustly
taken from you, then offer your abuser your undercloth. Offer him,
in all seriousness, to take it off you, and leave you standing next
to him arrystarkus. This would have turned the table. The abuser
would be the one left ashamed, as he surely wouldn’t do this. And
thus the dignity of the abused person was left intact at the
end. This was the Lord’s desire. Likewise, Roman soldiers were
allowed to impress a Jew to carry their pack for a mile, but they
were liable to punishment if they made him carry it two miles. To
offer to carry it the second mile would almost always be turned
down by the abusive soldier. And again, at the end of the exchange,
he would be the one humiliated, and the Lord’s follower, even though
abused, would remain with head up and dignity intact.
Perceiving the value of persons also leads to a recognition of
the autonomy of individuals, and also the autonomy of local churches.
Those who perceive the value and meaning of the human person will
never seek to manipulate, railroad or otherwise deny their autonomy.
Rudolf Rijkeboer perceives this teaching of local church autonomy
in the way "Israel was one nation and was therefore represented
by one seven branched candlestick. Under the New Covenant there
are scattered ecclesias in an "outside" world and hence
seven separate candlesticks" (4). The Lord's acceptance of
local church autonomy should be reflected in the way we view local
congregations- rather than lumping them beneath some primitive understanding
of mere denominationalism. In practice, this works out through dialoguing
with people as individuals, and not treating them as being merely
under a banner, a statement of faith, a name or category of human
invention. This is true most importantly in the realm of personal
relationships, as well as in our approach to the theological persuasions
of others. "You shall not hate your brother in your heart,
but you shall reason with your neighbour" (Lev. 19:17,18).
Unless there is direct, one on one dialogue, the hatred born of
misunderstanding will develop. But reasoning together is something
only possible if we perceive the value of persons.
The radical value attached to every individual in Christ is brought out especially by the New Testament teaching about family life. There were many pagan 'household codes', which basically exhorted the slaves, children and women to be subordinate to the male leaders of the family. Paul frames his family teaching in exactly the terms of these 'household codes' in order to bring out the significant differences between God's way and the way of society in this vital area (5). The fact Paul and Peter in their 'household codes' speak of the head of the house being submissive and having responsibilities to love, as an act of the will, was quite radical. But those male leaders had to learn that in Christ, everyone matters, and people can't be treated by their brethren as they are by society generally, as nothing and nobody, mere cogs in a machine. The familia , or extended family, was of itself devaluing to persons. A woman married into her husband's extended family, and effectively lost so much of her uniqueness as an individual- indeed women were so often treated as faceless. But Paul teaches, on the sure foundation of Genesis, that a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife (Eph. 5:31). This was far more radical than may now appear. The man was being taught that merely perpetuating the extended family, using the woman you received in your arranged marriage in order to continue and expand the family, was not in fact God's way. He was to leave that extended family mindset and personally cleave to his wife in love- love which was an act of the will. He was to start a new family unity; to love his wife rather than his extended family "as himself". Likewise fathers are told to bring their children up in the instruction of the Lord Jesus (Eph. 6:4)- when the task of training up children was left to the women, older children and slaves (especially the paidagogos) in the extended family (6). The value of persons implicit here was thus a call to be essentially creative, independent, perceiving the personal [rather collectively-imposed] value in both oneself and others in ones' family
The Lord’s great emphasis upon the value and meaning of persons
has a huge theological implication, too. I recall being present
at the baptism of a young American. Afterwards, we had a gathering
for him, and asked how he felt. I still remember his words, verbatim:
“I feel like a bunch of crap on two legs that God had pity upon”.
And I recall well my own feelings of deep sorrow that he should
feel that way. For that young man was made in the image of God,
like all of us. His position was, I assume, an extension of a belief
that we are somehow born with a ‘nature’ that is so wicked that
God is angry when a foetus takes shape, and somehow relieved when
every person bearing that nature disappears off the face of the
earth. But this is not the case. A loving Father rejoices
in our birth, and mourns our [temporary] passing. Whatever we say
about ‘human nature’, we say about the Lord Jesus- for He bore our
‘nature’ and yet was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from
sinners. It’s actually very hard to Biblically define what we mean
by ‘human nature’; it’s not some intrinsic piece of ‘sin’ that somehow
is metaphysically ingrained into us, upon which the wrath of God
abides. So I prefer to speak rather of ‘the human condition’ to
avoid this impression. In passing, let’s get it clear that Rom.
8:3 doesn’t speak of something called ‘sin-in-the-flesh’. Students
as varied as John Carter and Harry Whittaker [in The Very Devil]
have faithfully pointed out that this is neither grammatically nor
contextually correct. The Lord Jesus condemned sin; and where and
how did He condemn it? In “the flesh”, in that He too lived within
the nexus of pressures and influences of this sinful world. He appeared
just another man, so much so that when He stood up and indirectly
proclaimed Himself Messiah, those who knew Him were amazed; because
He had appeared so very ordinary. Truly He was in “the likeness
of sinful flesh”, yet without personal sin. 2 Cor. 7:1 exhorts us
to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the flesh (RV), not
being like those sinners who “defile the flesh” (Jude 8). These
passages would imply that the flesh is defiled not by who we are
naturally, but by human behaviour and mindsets from which we can
separate ourselves. Whilst we consider ourselves so awful that we
consider our flesh to be defiled naturally, we will never
value the human person, and will give way too easily to sin as if
it’s just our natural fate. “In the likeness of sinful flesh”
(Rom. 8:3) seems to be parallel with “in the likeness of men”
and “in fashion as a man” (Phil. 2:7,8). “Sinful
flesh” refers therefore to ‘sinful humanity’,
rather than implying that we are sinful and offensive to God simply
by reason of being human beings. The spotless lamb of God had full
human nature, He looked like a man because He was a man, and therefore
He looked just like the same men who regularly perform sinful actions.
Now all this is not to say that man is not a mixed-up kid. Our deepest desires are selfish; and we all say ‘Amen’ to Paul’s description of his experience of his own humanity in Romans 7. We see the Hitlers, Auschwitz, the young men who put out the eyes of beautiful horses… and of course we wonder about human depravity. But such depravity, disturbance, delinquency… is clearly enough rooted in a lack of love, of true relationship. Such horrors are not, to me, any proof that something called ‘human nature’ which we each carry within us is so evil of itself. We have the propensity to these things. because our experiences and environment can elicit such responses from us. And of this we all need to soberly beware. But the Lord was like us; and He never sinned. We’re not, therefore, ‘inevitable sinners’. Biblically [and experientially], our need is redemption from sin, rather than from this abstract idea of a ‘nature’. And this was why the Lord died for us, to atone for real, actual, concrete, committed sin, and thereby open up the way of life. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.
The Lord achieved this because He was our representative. He was like us, “according
to the flesh” (Rom. 1:4), with the same heredity and environment.
He was the product of these processes, like any other member of
the homo sapiens species. But in Him, God showed us the
true humanity, what humanity was intended to be; hence the many
allusions to Adam when Paul is writing about the Lord Jesus. We
understand Him, therefore, as our representative. Not so
that we don’t have to die [this is the error of substitutionary
theories]; but exactly so that we can die with Him. We
find ourselves located within a nexus of pressures and relationships-
political, sexual, racial, psychological etc., which appear at times
to force us into sin. And yet He, as our representative, who was
“according to the flesh” in just the same position, never sinned.
And thus He inspires us; for He shared in the human condition, “in
the likeness of sinful flesh”, just as much as we do. He died to
the promptings of His own desires, He resisted the pressures of
the surrounding world of flesh unto death. Again I’ll say it. He
was human, our representative, not to save us from having to die-
but precisely so that we can die with Him, in following
His example. This was why He lived and died for us. And
this love of Christ “constrains us”, it leaves us no choice, but
to follow Him.
(1) Peskita Rabbati, 184b-85a, as quoted in Harriet Kaufman, Judaism And Social Justice p. 29.
(2) See L. Wittgenstein, The Blue And Brown Books (2nd
ed., Oxford: OUP, 1969) p.17.
(3) See L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (3rd
ed., Oxford: OUP, 1967) secs. 66,67,77.
(4) Rudolf Rijkeboer, Jesus' Last Message (Voorburg, Holland:
De Broeders In Christus, 1998) p. 17.
(5) As exemplified in Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest (Leicester: I.V.P., 1998) p. 188.
(6) This is brought out powerfully in Ben Witherington, Grace In Galatia (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998) pp. 262-271.