Closing the Dignity Gap
He entered the world with no dignity. He would have been known as a mamzer, a child whose parents were not married. All languages have a word for mamzer, and all of them are ugly. His cradle was a feeding trough. His nursery mates had four legs.
He was wrapped in rags. He was born in a cave, targeted for death, raised on the run.
He would die with even less dignity: convicted, beaten, bleeding, abandoned, naked, shamed. He had no status. Dignity on the level of a king is the last word you would associate with Jesus. There is a king in the story, though. Jesus was born “during the time of King Herod.” To an ancient reader, Herod — not Jesus — would have been the picture of greatness. Born of noble birth, leader of armies, Herod was so highly regarded by the Roman Senate that they gave him the title “King of the Jews” when he was only thirty-three years old.
The child in Bethlehem would grow up to be a friend of sinners, not a friend of Rome. He would spend his life with the ordinary and the unimpressive. He would pay deep attention to lepers and cripples, to the blind and the beggar, to prostitutes and fishermen, to women and children. He would announce the availability of a kingdom different from Herod’s, a kingdom where blessing — of full value and worth with God — was now conferred on the poor in spirit and the meek and the persecuted. People would not understand what all this meant. We still do not. But a revolution was starting — a slow, quiet movement that began at the bottom of society and would undermine the pretensions of the Herods. A new time had come with Jesus, a time when thinking about kings and children would begin to shift. You might say there was an idea lying there in the manger along with a baby.
All peoples in the ancient world had gods. Their gods had different names, but what they shared was a hierarchal way of ordering life. At the top of creation were the gods; under them was the king. Under the king were members of the court and the priests, who reported to the king. Below them were artisans, merchants, and crafts people, and below them was a large group of peasants and slaves — the dregs of humanity. The king was divine, or semi-divine. The king was understood to be made in the image of the god who created him. Only the king was made in the image of the god. This was a dividing line between the king and the rest of the human race. Peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god; they were created by inferior gods. This is the Dignity Gap. The farther down the ladder, the wider the gap.
But that gap was challenged by an idea that lay there in the manger, an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is one God. He is good. And every human being has been made in his image. Because God is Creator of all, the earth is full of creatures. But human beings reflect the image of God in a way no other creature can, with the capacity to reason, choose, communicate, and invent. Imagine what it did to the hearts of the dregs of humanity to be told that not just the king but they too were created in the image of the one great God. Male and female, slaves and peasants, made in God’s image. God said that these human beings are to exercise “dominion.” That’s a royal word. But it is no longer reserved for the few. Every human being has royal dignity. When Jesus looked at people, he saw the image of God. It caused him to treat each person with dignity. This was the idea to which that little baby in a manger was heir, which had been given to Israel, which would be clarified and incarnated in his life in a way not seen before. Rejoice! For you are created in the image of the one great God!