“And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” – Luke 20:45-47
Self-promotion is as old as mud. Statues, pyramids, parties; we’ll go to great lengths to be praised, to be liked, even loved. It’s the dirty well we return to over again to quench our thirst. Today self-promotion is easier than ever and has become acceptably trendy. Propelled in part by social media, it’s not always self-promotion or praise but promotion or praise of those close to us, or those we’d like to be more closely associated with. The thinking is that the best way to express and experience love or honour is through public exaltation.
Acclamation may not be wrong all in itself, and indeed might be entirely appropriate at times. I am not saying we should resist celebrating God’s good work in one another, or that we should entirely disavow the wonderful tools that enable us to communicate such good work clearly. I am saying we must be mindful of what we are communicating. Public exaltation can lead down a road Jesus says we should be leery of: the love of esteem and placing inordinate value on applause.
The image we project will inform those watching of how we see the world and how we want to be seen. I say all this with some reservation, fully aware of the irony in this very article being shared on a website under my own name. But perhaps that is the point; any promotion of self, even as a signpost to a greater thing, is tricky ground we each now share. For example, at my age and experience, I don’t feel comfortable sharing photos of myself in front of a crowd or standing on a platform. The discomfort persists because I’m not sure those sorts of images tell the truth, at least not the whole truth. That moment in front of people is just a slice of my life that, to some, might seem glamorous. And that is a problem, because that is not what it is. It’s tempting to depict the pastoral vocation as glamorous, but in doing so we miss the mark. We risk mistaking glamour for glory.
We have very particular thoughts about power and glory, and they are usually formed in the vacuum of personal experience. Not unlike James and John in Mark 10 – who ask to rule with Jesus when he “comes into his kingdom” – we are sure we understand power and glory as we’ve seen it displayed by many important, even well meaning, people. Many times we’re convinced that being smarter, stronger or better looking produces influence. In religious circles that influence is sometimes understood as being better at talking or singing, or how many people will file in to listen. Great concern about image is a possible (likely unexpected) bi-product. But talking and dressing well are entertainment industry values, an industry built on consumerism, on giving people what they want. It can become what we want too if we’re not careful – all that power, all that glory.
The trouble is that standing in front of people and talking is not what makes my life glorious or powerful. The illusion of celebrity, for the pastor especially, is in a way “swapping truth for a lie” as it holds no real power or glory in itself, at least not as the Bible understands those things. With the cross on full display, the Jesus story says that celebrating celebrity is counterintuitive to God’s way of doing things. “Beware” says Jesus, because brandishing this sort of celebrity status is deceptive, leading people to believe something untrue about us. We may even start to believe something untrue about ourselves. Worse, we may all start to believe something untrue about God.
If we take Jesus at his word, that he is indeed the truth, then the gospels disabuse us of a glamorous God altogether. In Mark’s story Jesus finally declares himself to be Israel’s “I Am” – God’s name for himself when first speaking with Moses – seemingly at his weakest, chained before the Sanhedrin. John’s Jesus, slave-like over dinner, is equally scandalous assuring Peter, “You don’t understand what I am now doing, but someday you will” as Peter protests a foot washing. Of course John’s really high note is his climactic glorification of the crucified Christ – a confounding, unpopular, ugly thing. This is what the gospels say glory and power really looks like: a naked Jesus, struggling for breath, nailed up on a cross, and as a friend of mine says, “without any bathroom breaks”. This was the image God shared, what he wanted us to take serious note of.
Paul writes to the Corinthians “…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” When God shared an image of himself it didn’t appear glorious or powerful at all, as people understood such things, but just the opposite. Yet the writers of the New Testament said it was power and glory displayed at its zenith, a total redefinition of things, a turning of what was upside down to right side up.
Eugene Peterson says this in his discussion of Jeremiah, a rather unpopular prophet in his time: “There is nothing wrong with success, and there is nothing wrong with applause. What is wrong is to evaluate the worth of words and deeds simply by their popularity. What is scandalous is to approve only what is applauded. What is disastrous is to assume that only the celebrated is genuine.” (Peterson, Run with the Horses)
Tradition holds that upon pronouncement of his execution Peter asked to be crucified upside down. He didn’t feel worthy to die in the same manor as Jesus since he’d had his ideas about power and glory turned right side up so many times over. Perhaps this was Peter’s final, humbling projection: I am so very often upside down, Jesus is right side up.
What do we want people to take serious note of? What is the truth, and are we in danger of projecting something else entirely? Jesus did not sell; he served. He did not posture; he prayed. He was not conceited; he was cruciform. Christ crucified: this is the truth, and we should be wary of projecting anything contrary.