Seeing Christ in “The Other”
Last night I participated in a local ecumenical service marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It was only the second such service that I have been a part of, but these are already becoming a highlight on the calendar for me. It is a beautiful thing to see Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Salvation Army and United Church folks, and Mennonites worshipping the same God, together. Happily, last night’s service was quite a bit fuller than anticipated with people spilling out into the hallways of the small chapel at the local United Church. It was a very good night.
Last night’s homily was delivered by the Roman Catholic priest. It was a stirring and lively presentation, laced with humour, grace, and truth. Impressively, he used no notes, which was a simultaneously inspiring, and humbling thing to witness for those of us who are still desperately tethered to our manuscripts each Sunday! He spoke from Luke 24 and Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, of how the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, didn’t understand, were slow to believe, of how their eyes were opened at the breaking of bread. He spoke of how we are not so very different from those first disciples—we don’t recognize Jesus when he appears to us in the least of these, in the faces of our sisters and brothers from different denominational backgrounds, in “the other.” It was an inspiring message about the ways in which Jesus appears to us and a challenging word about our slowness or unwillingness to recognize him when he comes.
I’ve been thinking about the message throughout the morning today. Specifically, I am reflecting upon the call to “see Christ in the other.” On the one hand, this is surely a true and important message to hear. Jesus himself says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Surely, our treatment of ordinary human beings is in some important sense an expression of our convictions about and love for God.
But the exhortation to “see Christ” in our neighbour also makes me a little uneasy. Perhaps this simply reflects my lack of imagination or theological dexterity, but I find myself wondering why it is that I would need to see “the other” as Jesus to treat them with love and compassion? What exactly are we saying when we rehearse this well-known imperative? That “the other” would ordinarily not register on my moral radar were it not for imagining that they were Christ himself? That I need to perform some imaginative identity gymnastics to convince myself to honour those who are different from me? That the threat of punishment (as in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats) is my primary motivation for treating people with dignity and respect?
This rationale strikes me as structurally similar to the whole “you never know, you might be entertaining angels unaware” line from Hebrews 13. Do we really want to say that the only reason we are behaving appropriately to “the other” is because they might be Jesus or an angel? What does this say about “the other?” Is “the other” merely a cipher or a placeholder for the more important angelic or divine beings that ought more appropriately inspire and motivate our behaviour? Is our treatment of “the other” instrumental or do we honour them for their own sake? Should we extend care and concern to “the other” because we see Christ in them or simply because we see “the other” in them?
Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is precisely in honouring “the other” for their own sake that we honour God, the one in whose image each human being is made. Perhaps the call to “see Christ” in “the other” is a call to recognize our common humanity and need for redemption. I don’t doubt that last night’s speaker had these things (and others, no doubt!) in mind. And, of course one cannot expect a detailed parsing of these thorny matters in a ten-minute homily! But, at the risk of ridiculously over-simplifying things, I am thinking of what I often say to my kids: “Treat others the way that you would like to be treated.” So, how would I like to be treated? Would I like someone to treat me well because they saw Jesus in me or because they saw me in me? Probably the latter. Or both. I don’t know.
I hope this doesn’t come across as grouchy or petty, or as a whiny, hyper-individualistic demand to be recognized as unique and special, blah, blah… God knows, I can fall into the temptation of straining out the proverbial gnat whilst gulping down the camel! Just something I’ve been thinking about on a lazy Monday morning…
..Put it in your tool box,Ryan. I”ve used this clever psychological technique many a time to psyche myself out,so to speak,when i need to be nice to someone i dont particularly like. it’s always much easier to see the Devil in them though….
I don’t know, I guess I don’t like the idea of having to psychologically manipulate myself into loving people… When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” I don’t think he meant for us to somehow pretend that the people who are difficult to love are someone other than who they are. I think he meant, “Love your enemies AS your enemies.” I think we are meant to love people for who they are, not imagine that they were someone else in order to make loving them more palatable.
Having said that, I see the truth in what you say. Sometimes we have to have some way of seeing beyond or through the person in front of us to treat them as we ought to. Perhaps the fact that this technique is sometimes necessary says more about us and less about “the other” than we might care to admit :).
“Perhaps the fact that this technique is sometimes necessary says more about us and less about “the other” …” a point well made,Ryan
Perhaps it is the act of loving that is the kicker. I think, like you suggest, that there is something about both loving Jesus in “the other” and simply loving “the other” for their own sake. If God is love, as John famously declared, would not both Jesus and “the other” be equally present in our love? (neither dimished for the sake of a moral framework, but rather both fully dignified by the act of loving) Therefore swatting, hopefully satisfactorily, the buzzing gnat.
“Therefore swatting, hopefully satisfactorily, the buzzing gnat.” hahahahahahahhaha..Love it
What a great way to put it, Kevin. This is a much more helpful and theologically nuanced (not to mention charitable!) way to conceptualize the imperative to “see Christ” in the other. Thanks.
Thanks for your encouraging words Mike & Ryan. Glad I could be both entertaining and insightful. I think Ryan lists both making poeple laugh and think as purposes of this space.
Absolutely, Kevin! As long as people aren’t laughing at what I am thinking about… That’s not allowed.
My question is whether seeing Christ in others is in fact a biblical teaching. The Matt. 25 passage seems, instead, to be about pagans/ethnics/Gentiles (who don’t know or follow Jesus) being commended for unknowingly serving Jesus when they came to the aid of suffering disciples of Jesus (who are often named “little ones” in Matthew’s gospel), because these little ones are the stand-ins for Jesus in the world (a theme one can find in various places in the New Testament).
Are there other texts in the NT that teach us to ‘see’ Jesus in the people around us?
It’s a good question, Andrew. I think “see Christ in others” is one of those default maxims that we sort of intuitively accept as followers of Jesus, but I’m not sure it has a whole lot of explicit biblical support. The Matthew passage, as you say, seems to have a different issue in view.
I guess the basic truth that human beings bear God’s image would, in some sense, support the idea that we are to see Christ in others (depending how deeply we wanted to delve into the mysteries of the Trinity :)).
In the NT itself, I’m not aware of too many texts that would make this explicit connection. There are a few that talk about “inferiors” imagining their service was rendered to Christ (e.g., Ephesians. 6:5-6; Colossians 3:23-25)… I suppose the attitude commended in these could be more broadly extrapolated, but in context they seem more narrow in focus. There are many passages that talk about emulating the character of Christ in how we treat other people, but this is a different thing. I am far more “comfortable” (not the best word!) with the exhortation to “put on Christ” in my own life, as I try to allow my own character to be shaped according to his pattern than I am with the perceived need to “see Christ” in other people.
But, again, I do like what Kevin says above about the presence of Christ in all human love. I think that his approach is (happily) both psychologically and theologically more palatable than the way I framed things in the main post.
Thanks for your comment.
Thanks for engaging my musings. Wtihout question, the notion of “putting on Christ” is clear in the epistles. To the main topic, however, your last two paragraphs shed light for me. To see the image of God in all humans is vital. Furthermore, God is restoring that image in people through Jesus Christ, as in 2 Cor. 3. Plus, 1 John bears revisiting, in that if “God is love” we should expect to see God’s fingerprints wherever there is love.
Thank you, Andrew. I like how you put it:
“We are all capable of good and evil. We are not born bad: everybody has something good inside them. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there. God created us to love and to be loved so it is our test from God to choose one path or the other. Any negligence in loving can lead someone to say ‘yes’ to evil and, when that happens, we have no idea how far it can spread. That’s the sad part. If someone chooses evil, then an obstacle between that person and God is set up and the burdened person cannot see God clearly at all. That’s why we have to avoid any kind of temptation that will destroy us. We gain the strength to overcome this from prayer, because if we are close to God we spread joy and love to everybody around us.If evil takes possession of someone they, in turn, may spread evil to everybody around them. If we are in contact with such people we must try and help them and show them that God cares for them. Pray hard to help bring prayer back to them so that they may once more see God in themselves and then see Him in others. It is this which will help the person who is bad because everybody – it doesn’t matter who – has been created by the same loving hand. Christ’s love is always stronger than the evil in the world so we need to love and to be loved: it’s as simple as that. This shouldn’t be such a struggle to achieve.”….Mother Teresa