There is a trend within culture that seems to have infiltrated the church. Culture, especially here in the west, tends to equate one’s importance – and therefore their worth – with what they do, who they know, and how much power, money, or influence they may have. To see how this might have influenced the church, how many Christians do you think would rather meet with the Carl Lentz’s, Judah Smith’s, Matt Chandler’s, and Hillsong’s of today than people who are being prostituted, substance abusers, homeless, and those considered “worthless” by society? Don’t get me wrong, the ministries of the aforementioned are amazing and important to bringing people to Christ.
But should the influence, ministry, money, or power one has make her/him worth more or less than others?
Genesis 1:26 communicates to us that God created man in His image. Defining the Image of God (or Imago Dei) is a tricky thing. Yet there is a universal truth we can pull from this understanding, something philosopher John Locke partially understood when he famously said, “That all men by nature are equal” (Though John Locke’s patriarchal understanding should be relegated to say “That all humankind by nature are equal.”) Locke’s now famous statement dealt more with equality based on the ability to be free and “not subjected to the will or authority of any other man.” Yet, did John Locke go far enough in his understanding of equality?
The Image of God, though it does deal with equality in freedom from being controlled or owned by another person, is much more complex, in depth, and revolutionary than just freedom alone. God sees us as all as equal in worth, He loves us all the same; there is no one greater or lesser than anyone else in God’s eyes. So why do we have the tendency to treat people like they are?
“My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted? – James 2:1-4.
In his writing, James understood something that was radical for a society that had its own version of a caste system. Worth in the kingdom of God is not based on how much money one has, how much influence one has, what one does as a job, or any category that our society often uses to honor some more than others.
How we treat people fundamentally expresses how much worth they have in our lives.
Worse, over time, how we treat people will even begin to affect our psychological makeup. In a rather profound study conducted just a few years ago, researchers Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske discovered something terrifying about how we in America perceive homeless people.
“Basically, [the] area of the brain called the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) activates when people do things that involve perceiving and relating to other people, such as recognizing and distinguishing between faces and empathizing. These researchers hypothesized, however, that like objects such as tables, images of certain groups of people—the homeless—would fail to activate the mPFC.
This is exactly what they found. Images of all other groups besides the homeless activated the mPFC. This suggests that the homeless are not recognized as human relative to other groups. They actually are perceived, at least in this area of the brain, more like objects, such as tables” [Emphasis added].
If you are like me, this is terrifying. That we can get to a place within our society and culture that we have viewed some people as “worthless” for so long our minds no longer perceive people as people is incredibly sad. If this is going to change, it has to change with those who follow after the man who said, “as you did it to one of the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
The Church is beckoned to insight that societal change.
We are invited to follow after the message of Christ, especially the message which we find God communicating to us as His people through Scripture. We must learn to lift up those who are seen by culture as worth-less, and not prioritize people based on money, ministry, power, influence, or the structures that our culture tells us makes a person worth-more. It is then that we will see people’s worth through the Image of God within them, and understand their equal place in the Kingdom of Heaven.