Twenty centuries after the life of Jesus Christ, we take for granted the worth and dignity of every person. This was built into the very fabric of our American society from the beginning. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal.
But Jesus was born into a very different world. First of all, half of the population—all the women—were second class citizens in almost every culture. In many places the law of the land made women the property of their fathers or husbands. In most places, slavery was an accepted practice. Defeated peoples were routinely captured and kept, or sold, as slaves. Even Plato and Aristotle said that most people were best suited for lives of slavery. And in Israel, sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors were openly despised, and good people were forbidden to even associate with them. And everywhere, the poor and handicapped and diseased could easily be ignored and avoided.
Jesus changed all that. He paid special attention to the poor and the downtrodden, he touched and healed the diseased, he would go into the homes of even the worst sinners, and he affirmed the dignity and rights of women. His disciples followed Jesus in this, and from the beginning the Church reached out to everyone, proclaiming the dignity of each person. In time, as Christianity extended its influence throughout the Roman Empire and around the world, life improved for millions. The entire complicated historical case for this cannot be made here, but these positive changes can be traced back to Jesus and the Jewish tradition he fulfilled. While some historians will focus on the Church’s many failures in this and every other area (and the process has most certainly been filled with problems, wrong turns, and setbacks), it was indeed the influence of Jesus Christ that taught Western civilization the dignity of every person (or, as we might say today– ‘All Lives Matter’). Jesus lifted up the lowly, calling them children of God, loved and cared for by the Creator of the universe. There is no greater dignity.
Jesus taught dignity to the oppressed and downtrodden, AND at the same time, Jesus taught humility to the high and mighty. This lesson, of course, was taught by many in the ancient world, and if nowhere else, the lesson was made clear by the inevitability of death. But no one could teach, and demonstrate, humility like Jesus, the Son of the Almighty God, who left the glories of heaven to come to earth as a lowly human. Not only that, but Jesus subjected himself to a cruel death at the hands of wicked men. Jesus sought to win back his creation by love and mercy, not by force and overpowering might. In God’s eyes, no human is better than any other– all will face God’s judgment and all have access to God’s mercy.
So it is from Jesus that we learn of our dignity, and, of our need for humility. Both truths were expressed by Mary when Jesus was still in her womb. After the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Mary sang a song of praise to God which included these words: “God has brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52).
God brings down some and lifts up others. We see God doing this throughout the Bible. In the early pages of the Old Testament, the might of Pharaoh is crushed and God raises up Moses to free the Hebrew slaves. In the book of I Samuel, the shepherd boy David defeats the giant warrior Goliath. In the book of Judges, Gideon, with only 300 men, defeats the whole army of the Midianites that had been threatening the Hebrews.
The entire nation of Israel went through a whole history of being raised up and then brought down. Sometimes they are lowly and despised and praying for help. God would then raise them up and give them the strength to defeat their enemies. Other times, the people of Israel are the arrogant and powerful ones who need to be humbled and brought low so they can return to the Lord. And then, when they would return, the Lord was always willing to lift them up again. This rising and falling is the story of God’s people in the Old Testament.
When the people were brought down by God, their defeat became the opportunity for their salvation because it brought them back to God. What good is even a whole lifetime of happiness, power, and wealth if it blinds you and turns you away from God’s eternal salvation? Or as Jesus put it, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul.” For the Israelites, it was only the defeat and destruction of their nation reawakened their faith in God. They were humbled, but in their humility, God did not forget their dignity,and God restored them. (continued…)
It has been often said, very truly, that (the Christian) religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary. –G. K. Chesterton
Luke 2:34-35a — Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, Jesus’ mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
Deuteronomy 32:39a — (God says), “See now that I myself am He. There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal.”
Hosea 6:1 — Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds.
Proverbs 11:2 — When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
PSALM 18:2a, 6, 16, 27, 49a:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge…
In my distress I called to the Lord;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears…
He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters…
You save the humble
but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.
Therefore I will praise you, Lord…