I suspect that everyone who loves sacred scriptures, no matter what scriptures that person considers sacred, has experienced something similar to what I experienced thirty years ago. After decades of reading and studying the Bible, my tradition’s sacred text, I came across a passage that I never noticed before. When that happened, I was stopped in my tracks. I read and reread the passage, asking myself, “Where has that verse been my whole life?”
If this passage of scripture appeared in one of the lesser-known and lesser-read parts of the Bible, you might say that I should excuse myself. But this verse came from the book of Luke, my favorite gospel. And the verse that I’m referring to comes from the mouth of Jesus. In other words, this verse should be hard for a Christian to miss.
But miss it I did until I was in my forties. If you feel compassion for me, if you want to console me by saying that we all miss things right under our noses, don’t be so kind. I’m a seminary graduate, have a Ph.D. in New Testament, and had taught New Testament for twenty years at that point. How could I have missed this verse?
About now, you might be wondering which saying of Jesus I’m referring to. The saying comes from the sixth chapter of Luke. Tucked in at the end of a series of blessings for the poor, the sorrowful, the ones who are persecuted, Jesus adds this warning, “Beware when everyone thinks well of you.”
The first time that I really took in these words and their meaning, I reacted as if I’d been hit between the eyes with a two-by-four. I as much as said, “Say what? I thought the goal of life was to be well-liked.”
As I have shared in previous columns, my father was a minister. Pounded into my brain was the warning that if our family wasn’t well-liked by every member of my father’s church and if I wasn’t well-liked in my school, and pretty much everywhere else in town, then I could jeopardize my father’s career.
When I finally noticed this verse, I also thought of how highly valued is to be well-liked in our society. From nursery school onward, we’re taught to play nice, get along, and be team players.
But Jesus was often fond of saying things to make listeners and readers pause and think, “Say what?” If I’m to call myself a follower of Jesus, I can’t follow only his teachings that I like. I have to follow all of them. So what is Jesus teaching with this saying?
First of all, Jesus is not saying, “Be happy when no one thinks well of you.” Nor is Jesus advising us to forget about the needs of others and live for ourselves alone. That would be to miss the point, which is to beware when everyone thinks well of you.
In another saying of Jesus, another teaching that is difficult for Americans to accept, Jesus teaches that a person can’t love both God and money. A person has to make a choice. The passage about money and this one about being well-liked make a similar point. A person can’t live for both God’s approval and the approval of everyone. As one of my favorite contemporary prophets, Bob Dylan, put it, “Gotta serve somebody,” which implies that you better not try to serve everybody.
In my career of studying and teaching sacred texts, my own and others, I’ve found that sacred scriptures offer ways to free humanity from what binds us and holds us back.
Jesus’ warning is also offering a chance to break free. Needing to be liked by everyone is an addiction, and, with all addictions, the person becomes a slave. This addiction leads a person to become a chameleon who changes with every person he or she meets, always hoping to gain the other person’s approval.
The cure for this addiction? Jesus suggests that freedom to become our true selves comes from living for only one person’s approval—God’s.