Merriam-Webster dictionary defines worship as “to honor or show reverence for as a divine being or supernatural power.” This seems a functional working definition but anyone will tell you that worship means so much more than this. Perhaps your clearest experience has been in church, lost in the buzz of music. Maybe you first felt worship in the deep, sinking envy of celebrity. Worship pushes us to sacrifice everything from time to money to ambitions.It is also an experience highly prized by God. From the Hebrew exile from Egypt to Jesus’ ministry on Earth, exclusivity in who we worship has been one of the main themes throughout the Bible. Even Lucifer, who is described as being crafted by God with instruments inside his very being, is described as perfectly fit for worship. So why does God prize this quality so highly and what exactly qualifies as worship?
In Romans 12:1-2, Paul expounds on what worship should mean to believers. He says that we should “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” He calls this true and proper worship, which is a pretty radical and quite frank definition of what worship means in the Bible. It is not just an act of sacrifice or a passionate outpouring of emotion, worship comes from a place deeper than that. Worship is a mindset that comes from a place of absolute faith which motivates one to act mercifully and with empathy. From here, it seems pretty self-evident why God places such a high premium on this quality.
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says the following while giving his fundamental sermon on the mount: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. For better or worse, this has become somewhat of a contentious verse within the church.
In a country where capital is very highly prized, it is easy to slip into the total pursuit of wealth and justify the ethics for the quest after the fact. It’s easy to find yourself devoting every minute of your life pursuing more and more wealth for more than the sake of survival but because that wealth gives your life value. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to wealth, however. Fashion, celebrity, public attention, academic pursuit, all of these things can become objects we worship by devoting ourselves to them entirely without leaving room for God in our lives. Instead of bending our lives to fit God in, we sometimes try to bend God.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t have hobbies or interests, or that you can’t pursue wealth in any measure. We are each unique individuals made with specific talents and goals. This is more to say that whatever those talents and passions are, we must be sure that they are being used in service of our creator and not in pursuits of narcissistic self-aggrandizement.
Jesus, who was a Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation, preached a message that was anti-state and anti-religious imperialism. In fact, many believe that the Roman authorities and the elite within the Sanhedrin killed Jesus for espousing this anti-Roman, anti-Sanhedrin sentiment. Holy Week and Easter are now past, but the controversies that led to Jesus’ death are never far from us.
Let’s take a brief look at some of Jesus’ teachings and acts that stirred turmoil within the social and religious circles of His day, and ponder how they continue to affect us today.
• The Roman authorities forced its subjects to believe that the emperor was the savior, son of god, and redeemer of all peoples. Consequently, when returning from a military victory, the emperor would enter Rome in a triumphant procession that buttressed his might and power. So for a peasant from a marginalized town of an occupied territory to enter Jerusalem triumphantly (as a Savior) and to postulate Himself as God’s son and the messiah was not only a brazen sign of mockery of the emperor, but also of the Roman Empire.
• Jesus’ tirade against the vendors at the Temple was also a radical act. Since the Sanhedrin demanded a large portion of the vendors’ profits as rent for their space in the Temple’s outer portion, and since they kept the funds rather than investing them in improving the lot of the community’s poor, Jesus — in true prophetic fashion — denounced the corruption. He would not let others use religion as a means to garner wealth and prestige.
• Jesus’ overall message, summarized in His sermon on the plain (Luke 6:17-49), reverses the first century social order by placing the poor and meek first and the rich and powerful last. In the oppressive first century Galilean milieu, the poor and meek were the impoverished Jews (particularly women and children), while the Roman and Jewish male elites constituted the powerful upper class.
Both the Roman Empire and the Sanhedrin worked in collusion to keep the peace against constant rebellious threats from the occupied Jews. Jesus’ messages and actions therefore threatened both the Sanhedrin’s and the Roman Empire’s imperialist power and thus their legitimacy in the ancient Palestinian region. For His radical message and acts, Jesus paid the ultimate price.
Given the radical anti-imperialist message of Jesus, I often wonder whether Christians in the United States and Europe grasp Jesus’ radical gospel. I especially contemplate whether the young (ages 15-24) Christians truly comprehend it. These children of the empire, compared to the children of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, live relatively well. They do not normally witness their friends shot in the street; they usually do not die from starvation; and they do not know what it means to be persecuted for their parents’ political and religious views.
This speculation grew as I started teaching a high school class on Scripture. The student body at the high school I taught was heavily Haitian and Hispanic. Few of these students were third and fourth generation Americans who lived, by their own admission, in comfort. Others found themselves residing in the United States after escaping the repressive political and economic situations in Haiti and some Latin American countries. And still others were first-generation Americans who live in rough neighborhoods and ghettos, where, as one student told me, “doing drugs, stealing, and fighting were everyday things.”
As we began exploring the prophets of the Tanakh and Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, an interesting dynamic unfolded. Those who live in rough neighborhoods and those who had escaped a repressive economic and political context to live in the United States became extremely interested in what these prophets had to say about poverty, imperialism, and violence. On the other hand, those whose families had been established in the United States for several decades and who live in affluent neighborhoods did not really participate in the conversations about Jesus’ message of hope for the impoverished, oppressed, and marginalized. In fact, several of these students ignored their peers’ reflections on how they identified with Jesus’ message.
This dynamic is perhaps related to another phenomenon, namely the growth of Christianity in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America and its decline in North America and Europe. It is no secret that Christianity has become a religion of the Global South. Jesus’ anti-imperialist message is relevant in countries where several inhabitants live in extreme poverty and/or suffer from political persecution.
In the countries with relative political and economic stability, however, Jesus’ gospel is perhaps losing its radical edge. Rather, the focus in these wealthy countries is more on personal spirituality, personal sin, and personal salvation. Within these same countries, perhaps the only ones who truly comprehend the radical nature of Jesus’ message are the individuals who live in impoverished neighborhoods and/or are immigrants. May they — through their suffering and identification with the poor rabbi carpenter — inspire the children of the empire to help forge a globally just and sustainable society.