As we mark the 2013 occurrence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, we should take a moment and say, "Well done America," for we have come a long way. But this success should not lull us into complacency, for the world is a much more dangerous place than it was in Dr. King's time. While the black-white dialogue has not been completed, it is over in the sense that it has not continued because it has been joined by the numerous other voices of prejudice, discrimination and religious hatred. While we have taken a great step as a people in electing our first black president, intolerance of all sorts embroils the world to such an extent that, in the words of the 1960s song, "We're on the Eve of Destruction." Every major conflict in the world today may be linked to some kind of intolerance.
Is there any way out of this slippery slope of hate and intolerance? I suggest there is, and it is found in looking at the life of Jesus with a different set of lenses. Perhaps in seeing Jesus in a slightly different way, we may have a better chance of understanding how we are to live in a world marked by its diversity.
Throughout the years, theologians have wrestled with how much Jesus knew regarding his own divinity. Was he born with full knowledge that he was "the Christ," or was there a gradual understanding of who he was throughout his life? The Gospels are notoriously silent on the issue. The Gospels present Jesus at birth, at approximately 12 years of age, and finally the more complete story at 30 years of age. While most of us probably have not thought about where and when Jesus ultimately knew he was "the Christ," to follow the line of thought that Jesus' knowledge of self was gradual has some interesting possibilities of our understanding of how the Father worked with and through the Son, and how that same God might be working with us.
Let's suppose that Jesus' knowledge of his divinity was gradual and that the Father provided certain triggers in Jesus' life that led him to an eventual understanding of his divinity. What might these triggers be? They could be the natural phenomena that surrounded the child as he grew; the same natural phenomena that surround us -- the wind, the stars, the storms that sometimes seem to rage, or they could be in people and his daily encounters with them. In this line of thinking, I suggest that people were the most influential triggers that enabled Jesus to understand himself as "the Christ."
Now the Gospels describe an awful lot of people associated with Jesus, but a single group stands out -- those with whom he was not supposed to be associated. The wise men, the lady at the well, the leper, the tax collector, the dead, the prostitute, etc. I believe that in every instance of Jesus' encounter with "the other," he learned something about himself. For example, the encounter with the wise men introduced him to a world much larger than his small Jewish community. What must Mary have thought? The Gospels say she marked these events in her heart -- surely to make sense at a later date. Mary's boy belonged to the world at large as demonstrated in the royal visitors who greeted him. But more than the openness to diversity; he somehow belonged to royalty itself.
In his encounters with the sick and even his friend Lazarus, he learned of his ability to heal and be healed (the grieving for Lazarus). In Mary of Magdalena, he learned of his ability to forgive and to love and be loved. Through his engagement with "the other," we see Jesus grow in love and wisdom, I suggest, of himself. In these unique individuals, God was preparing Jesus for the full awareness of who he was and was to be. In a very real way, God came to His Son through "the others."
As Mary stored all these things in her heart, did she ultimately have an "Aha" moment? Did it all of a sudden make sense? To her? To him? We can only imagine. But if the divine plan was to allow the child to grow in wisdom and knowledge of what and who he was, the encounter with "the others" was absolutely formative and crucial.
What about us? If Jesus' encounter with "the other" was critical to his own formation, can the encounter with "the others" in our own lives be any less important? In Jesus' life, "the others" were those who proper society, a circle of friends and family might shun and with whom they might be very uncomfortable. Do we have "others" in our lives? Think for a moment about the "others" in your life? Are they people of different ethnic or religious groups, of societal status, of just not in your circle? Perhaps, all of the above. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration is a celebration of otherness.
How does the example of Jesus encountering his Father and even himself in those with whom he was not supposed to be associated have anything to do with us? The Gospels are our template and guide as to how we are to live our lives. In the life of Jesus' encounters with the others, are we getting a special illustration of how we ought to live? Let me give a scenario. It is pretty clear from all we know about human development that God has made us incomplete. Where do we find our completion? Obviously, in our parents, friends and family, we are on the road to completion. But God has given us more. He has given us "the other."
Our incomplete nature is much like an internal puzzle. To make ourselves whole and complete, we must find the missing pieces of our puzzle. Jesus found his missing pieces in his encounters with those with whom he might not and should not have been engaged. Can we be any different? If Jesus realized his divinity in others, surely our humanity will be found in a like manner. I have said that God has a wonderful sense of humor. In designing us incomplete, God has forced us to find our completeness in others. But who are "the others" in our lives? They are those who do not look or believe the same as you. As Abraham experienced so long ago, God comes to us in the stranger. He came to Jesus in the others and so to us in a similar way.