Jesus departed to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. . . . And he came down with the disciples and stood on a stretch of level ground. A great crowd . . . came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and even those who were tormented with unclean spirits were cured. Everyone in the crowd sought to touch him because power came forth from him and healed them all.Luke 6: 12, 17-19
Today the brilliant narrative of Luke offers a striking and potent detail. Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain where Jesus has been praying and, in light of that prayer, choosing his disciples, and then Jesus stands “on a stretch of level ground.” On that level ground there are people from all districts and of all stripes that are gathered with Jesus. Why does Luke detail the fact that Jesus comes down from the mountain and stands on this “stretch of level ground”?
There is something about God-infused service that is powerfully egalitarian. In the gospel it is as if Jesus, having spent the night in prayer to God, is impelled first to share his very mission with those whom God has given him as disciples and then to heal, in word and deed, those who are sick, “even those who were tormented with unclean spirits.” As I ponder my own attempts to be of service to others, I realize how difficult it is to serve as Jesus did (and does) especially in two respects.
The first of these is to do my work in service to others on level ground with them. As a very young child I began to experience an aspiration to be a teacher. Even then, as I reflect back, this aspiration contained two very different motivations. On the one hand, I aspired to teach because of how I, a child, was being confirmed as a person by these adults. Here were people who were with us, who spent their time with us because they recognized and wanted to confirm in us our inherent sense of worth. As a very shy and self-depreciative child, I experienced from some of my teachers a sense of the value and possibility that lay within me. On the other hand, I now wonder if I also in part did not envy them their power. As one who felt powerless in the hands of adults, did I also want to “turn the tables,” and become someone, to be the powerful one in the room? And was being “the teacher” a way to do this?
Unless we have reduced our motivations to simply the desire to feel powerful, to never let ourselves be the powerless or vulnerable one, almost every act of giving has, for us, this mixed motivation. We do desire to serve, to be of value to others, but we also want recognition and status for ourselves. At least for myself, I am aware of this truth every time my efforts are not recognized and appreciated. At those moments, the powerless and vulnerable child asserts its fear and hurt; its feelings of impotence and rage. This is the “self” who wanted to be the teacher so that he would not feel that powerlessness and worthlessness he felt as just another anonymous student.
So Luke’s detail of where Jesus teaches and heals is a powerful lesson. Jesus, who has just spent the night in communion with his father, meets the crowd “on a stretch of level ground.” The teacher and healer is at the same level as those who are sick and in need of teaching. We have all heard this over and over, so cognitively this is not a new insight. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we shall readily touch that in us which needs and wants to be superior to the others. In my very recent experience, I have been part of a leadership group that could readily recognize and describe the problems and deficiencies in those they were leading, for this enhanced the sense of our superiority. Over time, however, it became clear that the same deficiencies existed among ourselves and that even among ourselves we were unable to work on level ground, that is as equals. Even though Jesus himself would experience himself as no better or more powerful than others, we his followers find it most difficult to be of service without feeling superior to the others.
To serve on level ground means to be equally a learner even as we are a teacher. It is to admit our own blindness, as well as comprehend that of the other, and so to seek and accept the insight of the others. For our group, it would have meant acknowledging that the deficiencies of the wider group are also in us. Therefore, we need all of the others not merely to be docile to our direction but to show us who we are and to call us forth, as the Xaverian Fundamental Principles put it “to even greater service of the Lord.” We can never truly confirm others or be confirmed by them except in the whole truth of who we are. If we come to them only in a position of power then, paradoxically, we shall never experience being called forth by them into “even greater service of the Lord.” Greater service, for each of us, is always the unique service to which we, “in all our sinful and graced humanity,” are called.
Secondly, Luke seems to be particularly struck by the fact that “even those who were tormented with unclean spirits were cured.” Now I have no way of deducing Luke’s intention in making a special point of this. Unfortunately, given my own limitations with language, I am not even certain that the translation is adequate to the original. However, as I read “even those who were tormented with unclean spirits were cured” I think about how often my own service is highly selective. There are aspects of the human condition that frighten me. There are others that evoke disgust or repulsion in me. In a religious community, one of the great obstacles to fidelity to our shared call is our readiness “to peg” each other. There readily develops a common consciousness that creates a hierarchy of value within the community. I suspect that Luke makes his point about those tormented with unclean spirits because they were the most difficult to cure. And, no doubt, also the most disruptive.
Groups identify and often live by hierarchies of values, virtues, vices, talents, personality types, dispositions, and attitudes. We have personal and group understandings of what constitutes the unclean. Of course, when it comes to a shared or common project that is functional in orientation and whose goal is production, certain talents create better conditions for effectiveness than others. The “common project” of the Christian community, however, is community itself, a community of service but one impelled to that service by the shared love of and in Christ. And this is a community of the unclean who know themselves as cured and forgiven. As today’s passage from Colossians says:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.Col. 2: 13-14
The one we are to serve is the one before us whoever that is. We serve not out of our superiority and certainly not from a stance of power, but rather as a brother or sister who recognizes the sickness in the other because we know that same sickness in ourselves. In infancy and childhood we have very formative experiences of our own powerlessness. The “tempter” would have us believe that the way we overcome our fear of our own impotence is to exercise power over others. Today we see that no less than Jesus himself, coming out of his communion with the Father, meets all types of people “on a stretch of level ground.” In this, Jesus reveals to us the God in whom he lives. The God of Jesus, our God, is not known and recognized in power but in mercy and compassion toward ourselves and each other. In Jesus we learn that the Almighty chooses to be with us in our sickness and powerlessness. We then know and live in God when we abandon our desire to be powerful over others and rather to serve those who suffer every infirmity of the human condition because we are one with them in all those infirmities. Those I would exclude are the ones who most threaten me because they awaken in me my own self-hatred. This is why those I would avoid rather than serve are the greatest gift to me. In offering presence, love, and confirmation to them, I am receiving the affirmation of that in myself which I work so hard to avoid and even ignore. The “scandal of the cross” is the scandal that the power and wisdom of God is to be found in those places and persons that most disgust and horrify us.
The necessity of rendering the slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal. The urgency of distinguishing between those who belong to the human race and those who are decidedly non-human is so powerful the spotlight turns away and shines not on the object of degradation but on its creator. Even assuming exaggeration by the slaves, the sensibility of slave owners is gothic. It’s as though they are shouting, “I am not a beast! I’m not a beast! I torture the helpless to prove I am not weak.” The danger of sympathizing with the stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger. To lose one’s racialized rank is to lose one’s own valued and enshrined difference.Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others, pp. 29-30