To Serve and To Save: Name-Calling, Storytelling, and Death

A discussion of serving and saving requires addressing three themes in the great theater of life: the first is naming, the second is understanding the drama as it rolls out, and the last is how things end—and begin again.

In order to be defined and given meaning, all characters must be named; God practices the sacred task of naming His creations from the beginning of time, where He defines the boundary between ocean and air, to the end of time, where He will assign His people a new name. After we look at this holy task of naming, we can watch unfold a drama Jesus weaves; the actors (a beat-up man on the side of a road and a benevolent member of a persecuted group) are not called by the names we know them by off-stage, so we must run through our options to determine who’s who in the play, and what our role as humanity is. As the curtain closes, we look at death. For the drama—and our “selves” as we know them—must end in order for us to move off the stage and into the true life that is offered us.

Name-Calling

Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God gave Israel a name:

“I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me” (Is. 45:4).

“Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel . . . who swear by the name of the Lord” (Is. 48:1).

As God separated the waters above from the waters below, making each a unified body and defining their borders, He “called the expanse Heaven” (Gen. 1:8). He gave the task of naming the animals to Adam and Eve. The instances of God naming people throughout the Bible abound: Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham and Sarah, Jezreel, Jacob, John, Jesus; the list continues. In Revelation, the naming trend continues: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).

Names describe and define the borders of a being, the relationship that being has with the ones or One around it; George MacDonald (spiritual and literary mentor of C. S. Lewis) wrote regarding the new name given in Revelation:

For the name is one “which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” Not only then has each man his individual relation to God, but each man has his peculiar relation to God. He is to God a peculiar being, made after his own fashion, and that of no one else; for when he is perfected, he shall receive the new name which no one else can understand. Hence, he can worship God as no man else can worship him, can understand God as no man else can understand him. This or that man may understand God more, may understand God better than he, but no other man can understand God as he understands him . . . And for each God has a different response. With every man he has a secret—the secret of the new name. In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter . . . the innermost chamber.[1]

God has named Israel; He has defined it and recognized its existence as a nation, as when he “called the light Day and the darkness He called Night,” as he created and distinguished the two. (Gen. 1:5) This theme runs through the rest of life; writer Madeleine L’Engle wrote regarding nomenclature and her discipline, “And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos . . . When we look at a painting or hear a symphony or read a book and feel more Named [more whole], then, for us, that work is a work of Christian art.”[2]

By naming Israel, God proclaims outwardly that He stands in relation to it, and it to Him; He calls Israel His servant, a title he also uses for His Son.

The lesson states, in reference to Isaiah 41’s reference to God’s servant, “So, it is clear that Isaiah speaks of two servants of God. One is corporate (the nation) and the other is individual” (p. 69).

An interesting question arises from this: is Christianity collectivistic or individualistic? While the political implications of this question are more labyrinthine than can be tackled here, the question deserves some evaluation for the purpose of establishing a context within which to read everything from Isaiah (“each under his own fig tree”) to the Gospels (“they had everything in common”). As an extension of this question, did Jesus die to save us collectively or individually?

The articulation of C. S. Lewis, from a discussion on the topic in Mere Christianity, is helpful here:

The idea that the whole human race is, in a sense, one thing—one huge organism, like a tree—must not be confused with the idea that individual differences do not matter or that real people, Tom and Nobby and Kate, are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth.

Indeed the two ideas are opposites. Things which are parts of a single organism may be very different from one another: things which are not, may be very alike. Six pennies are quite separate and very alike: my nose and my lungs are very different but they are only alive at all because they are parts of my body and share its common life. Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body . . . When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.

On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are “no business of yours,” remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them.[3]

To address the idea of whether Jesus died for all as a group, bought in bulk and paid for a package deal, the same idea can be applied: “There is no massing of men with God. When he speaks of gathered men, it is as a spiritual body, not as a mass.”[4]

Storytelling

The Story of the Good Samaritan:

Act 1: Man is beaten and left to die.

Act 2: A priest and a Levite pass by. To the Samaritan, they seem heartless. In the grand scheme of humanity, they are normal.

In them, of course, we have a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Therefore, it is easy to think of them as cruel, deliberately brutal people. How easy to put anger in our voices when we tell our children about that priest and Levite. How easy—but also how false . . . for the priest and the Levite were the ones who guided and expressed the desire of the Jewish people to praise the Lord . . . Their appointed task was to pray and sacrifice for the people. They were called to be the voice even of that injured man in the Temple of the Lord.[5]

Act 3: Enter, a Samaritan, who appears thus and exhibits the following actions:

* From a persecuted people group

* Loves and serves those whose people persecute him

* Pours oil on the man’s wounds

* Takes responsibility for all present care and protection

* Commits to providing future care indefinitely

* Will come again and repay all debts incurred

Upon finishing his story, Jesus rephrases the lawyer’s question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36)

And the lawyer answers correctly.

“You go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

Why did Jesus tell His parable? “To teach us how to love our neighbors,” we often think to answer. But, to a degree, we already know how to love; suffering is often obvious enough to elicit some kind of response in us. “Our difficulty is not that we are full of love, and only need a little guidance from Jesus as to how we may best exercise it. Our difficulty is that we have no love, and we have no love because we have no true neighbor, not one who, in Jesus’ words, proves to be a neighbor to us.”[6] Jesus’s response was prompted by the lawyer’s question, which was not “How do I love my neighbor,” but “Who is my neighbor?” “Whom shall I love as myself?”

Who is the neighbor in the story? “The beaten man” is not the answer the lawyer gives. The Neighbor is the One who:

* Is persecuted

* Loves and serves those who’s people persecute Him

* Pours oil on Man’s wounds

* Takes responsibility for all present care and protection

* Commits to providing care indefinitely

* Will come again and repay all debts incurred

We are quick to identify with the Samaritan, the savior in the story. But humanity has been beaten and left to die; the Neighbor is the One whom the lawyer, and we, are to love.

If we read the parable in this way, as proposed by Arthur McGill in Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, we are left with his harsh conclusion: “It seems then . . . that when God commands us to love our neighbor, that neighbor is not just anybody, and is certainly not a half-dead needy person on the side of the road. Our neighbor is the one who “proves” to be a neighbor, the one who is compassionate to us, the one who picks us up and pours oil and wine on our wounds.”

We are to start with loving our Neighbor. All else will follow; the second task is like it.

Interpreting the parable in this way need not totally nullify our typical interpretation of the story as a guide for how we ought to love. Always exhibiting the superlative (the most loving, the most giving, etc.), as all is derived from Him, Jesus was the most intentional. Layers upon folds upon layers of story and metaphor are a mark of intentionality and quality in literature; might not the Great Author be expected to layer the meanings of even His simplest stories likewise? God leaves nothing unthought-of, yields no accidental by-products:

Surely a man of genius composing a poem or symphony must be less unlike God than a ruler? But the man of genius has no mere by-products in his work. Every note or word will be more than a means, more than a consequence. Nothing will be present solely for the sake of other things. If each note or word were conscious it would say: “The maker had me myself in view and chose for me, with the whole force of his genius, exactly the context I required.” And it would be right—provided it remembered that every other note or word could say no less.[7]

So perhaps we can see this as a double parable. Jesus has come to serve; we are to start by loving Him who is solely wholly deserving and lovable, who has made Himself our Neighbor. And in addition, we are to go and do likewise.

Death

The title of the lesson, “To Serve and to Save,” begs the question of who, exactly, is doing the serving? Is our relationship to Jesus analogous to Jesus’s relationship to the father? We serve Jesus. Jesus serves the Father. Does this waterfall of service flow the other way as well?

McGill, again, asserts that it does. In fact, God’s service to humanity is central to the doctrine of the Trinity:

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose His will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does His bidding. Far from staying above the world, He sends His own glory into it. Far from imposing, He invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from men in order to enhance Himself, He gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within Himself He is a life of self-giving.[8]

True giving, true love, is made up of what one cannot afford; giving the leftovers of the minutes in our life and the dollars in our wallet can be helpful, kind, beneficial. But it is not sacrifice. And love is sacrifice—it requires things we cannot get on the same without.

Our self is the highest thing we are given, the only thing we are given that was made in the image of God. It is the only thing we cannot afford to lose, and yet it is the very thing being required of us when we are told to “take up [our] cross.”

We see this kind of paradox springing up all throughout Scripture: “The first shall be last,” “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “He who loses life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39)

The kind of life Jesus seems to advocate for is one that, peculiarly, seems to entail death.

Death is a theme that runs throughout all of life on earth; death is necessary for life. In drinking the cup of death, Jesus poured out His life; his human life preceded His death, which allows for our life, but only if we die to self.

To be a Christian means to be Christlike. It means to follow Christ in self-denial, bearing aloft his banner of love, honoring him by unselfish words and deeds. In the life of the true Christian there is nothing of self—self is dead. There was no selfishness in the life that Christ lived while on this earth. Bearing our nature, he lived a life wholly devoted to the good of others.[9]

Death is a requirement for true life; “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

“You will be dead so long as you refuse to die.”[10]

Christina Cannon is a sophomore undergraduate at Southern Adventist University.

Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

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[2] Madeleine L’Engle, Sara Zarr, and Lindsay Lackey, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 37­–38.

[4] George MacDonald, George MacDonald: An Anthology 365 Readings, ed. C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 3.

[5] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 102.

[6] McGill, Suffering, 108.

[8] McGill, Suffering, 82.

[9] Ellen G. White, “In Union with Christ,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, vol. 84, no. 22 (May 30, 1907): 8.

[10] MacDonald, An Anthology, 168.

 


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