Jesus the game changer -Equality
All people are equal
If you went to a large gathering of people, say in a shopping centre or at a sports event, and asked people randomly if they believe everybody is of equal value and worth, my suggestion is that you will find very few people who would disagree with that idea.
It is a foundational value of most western democracies and is foundational for our democratic system of government.
What very few people in western nations don’t ever consider is, the origin of that idea and why we do believe that all people are equal.
Before we go further, it is helpful to add two caveats on what we say about equality.
While we say we believe all people are equal, our society seldom treats people equally. It is an ideal we aim for but mostly fail to live out either personally or as a community. While it’s true that we fail to hold this value, that does not mean we don’t have an underlying assumption that it’s a value that we ought to hold.
Society doesn’t treat all people equally. Not all ideas are equal
While all people are equal that does not mean all ideas are equal. Everyone has equal value, but the values and ideals people espouse are not equal. It is not hard to think of some abhorrent ideas that people have sort to implement over the centuries. Think of the ethnic cleansing and purging of communities undertaken by Hitler, Pol Pot or even the recent actions of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya minorities. In communities where we hold to people being equal, purging a society of an ethnic group due to their heritage strikes us as being appalling. Those who push these attitudes and actions are of equal value as anyone else, but that does not mean we give their ideas equal value.
We have always believed people are all equal.
If we ask people why we think all people are equal, the response will usually be that is what everyone thinks and that is what everyone has always thought. Neither of these responses are true.
People have not always treated everyone as equal.
At the time of Jesus, in the Greco Roman world, they did not believe people were of equal worth. The Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato did not believe people were equal. Aristotle believed that society was structurally unequal and that there was a subclass, the slaves, who were there to serve those who were the aristocracy. He referred to slaves as “anthropedon”, a neuter term, neither male nor female, a non-person. Aristotle also saw slaves as being born into that role, the property of their owners, and he viewed them as “living tools”. In his book ‘Politics’ he wrote “Indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life”.
It was into this world, a world of structural inequality, that Jesus taught and treated people with equal dignity and worth.
Around the world today there are communities with structural inequality.
If a nation follows the logical conclusions of Hindu teaching, the outcome will be structural inequality. This concept is underpinned by two key ideas. Firstly, reincarnation- where every soul returns again and again. Secondly, your behaviour in each life impacts your place in the next life, which is referred to as karma. So, the upper cast Brahmins felt justified in privilege as this reflects their past life. This is a culture where inequality is institutionalised via religious philosophy.
So why did Jesus and the early church treat people as equal, and where did that idea spring from?
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
This is an Old Testament concept from Jewish faith that is foundational for Christian belief. In Genesis 1:26-27 we read that God created humanity in the imagine of Himself. The scripture goes on to say that “male and female He created them”. All humanity has the stamp of God on them. The whole of scripture echoes this idea; you are of worth because you were created by God, reflecting the image of God.
This means that whether you are brilliant, powerful and wealthy, or poor, disabled, or unable to contribute in certain ways, you are of equal worth. It is a truth we believe and hold to.
The Psalmist reinforces this concept by writing (Psalm 139:13-16) NIV translation below
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
It is helpful to remember that this became the foundation for modern democracies such as the United States. In their Declaration of Independence, it states …
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
Recently, atheist scholar Yuval Harari (quoted in Os Guinness’ book “Impossible People” pages 132 – 133) has commented:
“The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a directly created soul, and that all people are equal before God.”
As an atheist and an evolutionist, Harari does not believe in creation so he believes these ideas built into the US constitution ought to be changed, his suggestion being: “created equal should therefore be translated evolved differently”.
Jesus taught and treated people as if they were equal.
As we have mentioned, at a time where they believed in structural inequality, Jesus taught equality.
Matthew 18: 10-14
“Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father. “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish.
Jesus tells a parable of a lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes after the one lost. This story demonstrates that everyone matters.
John 10: 1-13
“I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.
This passage is a mix of two different ways in which shepherds dealt with the sheep under their care. The first is in verses 1-6. The scene here is the common pen holding sheep in the village overnight. A number of different shepherds would come in off the hills and place their sheep in a common pen for safe keeping until they were ready to take their flock back out into the countryside. When they were ready, they would go to the gate of the pen (v3) and collect their sheep. They entered through the gate, not over the fence, as thieves entered via other methods. They knew their sheep and called them out. The sheep followed the shepherd whom they knew and trusted.
The second way (verses 7-13) is where the shepherd is out in the countryside with his sheep for a number of days, away from the village and common pen. In this situation, the shepherd built a small holding pen from branches and bushes. There was no door to his pen, but the shepherd would lie down across the gap and he was the door and the protector of the sheep in the pen overnight.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul writes to the churches in Galatia and reminds them that in Christ all the old barriers and classes have been broken down and destroyed. We are all now equal and he draws on three structural inequalities of the Greco Roman world to make his point and reminds his readers that this is now changed:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christianity is foundational to the idea of equality.
As scholars have looked over the development of human history and the importance of the individual, they have found that the teachings of Jesus and the Christian church are foundational to the idea of equality.
This is demonstrated in the book “Inventing the Individual” by Larry Seidentop. After teaching at Keeble College in Oxford for several decades, he released this book which looks at the development in the significance of the individual in western democracies.
“Christianity changed the ground of human identity... by emphasising the moral equality of humans, quite apart from any social roles they might occupy, Christianity changed 'the name of the game.' Social rules became secondary. They followed and, in a crucial sense, had to be understood as subordinate to a God-given human identity, something all humans share equally."
In a western world where wealth, power, social standing and prominence lifts some above the pack, leaving many feeling insignificant and irrelevant, we all need to hear this message clearly and we need to communicate it clearly.
Everyone matters equally!
Not because of what you have achieved, or who you know, or your number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers.
Which is why so many of us have fundamental issues with news reporting.
We do not understand why some people get all the coverage yet others are often ignored.
Why those like us, white English speaking, get greater coverage.
But those who are other, not white of a different ethnic background, hardly rate a mention.
I am reminded of a skit which used to appear on ABC TV called the D Generation.
This was of course in the days when the ABC wasn’t so politically correct. People were still able to be incredibly confronting about the hypocrisy and blind spots in society.
They had a mock TV news broadcast where they would report on the various disasters and tragedies around the world.
On the screen behind the “news presenter” they had a Deathometer.
This device recorded the number of deaths in each news story. But there was a twist.
If Australians died then it would go up.
Car crash kills 4 in Sydney, Deathometer would go up 4 places.
10 000 die in earthquake in Pakistan, Deathometer would go up 1 place.
Aboriginal dies in police custody. .... awkward silence .... Deathometer doesn’t move.
Then the presenter, without a hint of emotion, would say, “These are of course racially adjusted figures”
It was a powerful means of driving home a point, in a typically Australian style of directly confronting you with the issue.
We pay attention to those like us, they matter more.
But when it comes to those who are “other” we just don’t connect, or worse still they don’t matter and we actually don’t care.
Christianity does not teach that you matter because of how you perform.
Nor does it teach that some people matter more than others.
A celebrity is of no more worth in God’s sight than an untouchable outcast in India.
When a poor unknown child in the Middle East is killed by a bullet, the loss is just as great as a teenager in an American High School.
The media and the idolatry of celebrity worship has abandoned the truth that all people are equal.
We need to be careful that we don’t fall for the same lie.
You matter because God created you and loves you.
Each individual matters because God created them and loves them the same as he does you.
John wrote to his friends and said
This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
God loves you and wants you to know that you matter, you are important, you are loved equally and nothing you can do can change that.
This value has changed the world and it will change your life.
The questions is, “Will you let it?”
Many of us struggle with issues of self worth.
We get caught in the performance / acceptance / reward trap.
If I do well enough, but well enough is never enough.
If I am accepted enough, but rejection whether perceived or real, is waiting just around the corner.
If I have enough, but more is never enough.
When we accept that in God’s sight we are all of equal worth, that Christ died for me just as much as he did for you.
That God’s grace is just as effective for your sins as for mine.
Then we will begin to experience a freedom that enables us to experience God’s love and to love others as we have finally accepted we have been loved.