You may have noticed that an eery looking emblem recently appeared on my blog with some Greek and Hebrew along with a reference to 1 Corinthians 1:28, one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “He has chosen the despised ones and those who are not to bring to nothing the things that are.” Several nights ago, I got into a casual conversation with my blogger friends Zach Hoag and T.C. Moore. We decided to join forces in some fashion under the banner of “The Despised Ones.” We made a logo and invited some friends to join us, whatever it is that we will end up doing.
It all started when T.C. Moore wrote the following as his facebook status update:
There’s a peculiar tribe of radicals discovering they are not alone. They come from all different traditions and expressions of the church, but they share many common characteristics:
Their message is centered on Jesus the Messiah; their definition of power is the cruciform love of God revealed on the Cross; they proclaim Jesus Lord and King, not Caesar; they won’t bow down to nationalistic idolatry, nor will they be co-opted by any of the powers that be; their Gospel is good news to those on the margins; they live in authentic community in eschatological hope; they embody the life of the age to come; they live as pilgrims and sojourners in this world, because God is building a new city among them; they live in solidarity with the hurting, and celebrate the new covenant with joy; God is using them to renew all things.
They are Jesus-disciples, and they are turning the world upside-down.
This sounded a lot like what 1 Corinthians 1:28 says, so I shared it with T.C. and Zach. Essentially what we’re talking about is a specific set of priorities in thinking about the shape of the kingdom of God and the vocation of Christian disciples. When Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him, He’s not just telling us to engage in “self-sacrifice” through accruing a certain quota of volunteer service hours or smiling pleasantly a certain number of times at people who are being unpleasant to us. Taking up your cross is not about carrying a heavy load; it’s about renouncing your social status.
To take up your cross in a literal, 1st century sense would mean to join the procession of those who have been condemned to die in their march out of the city gates, which in figurative 21st century terms would mean to join the company of those who are despised by the world, the modern-day equivalents of “the prostitutes and tax collectors [who] are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of [those who think they are the gatekeepers of heaven]” (Matthew 21:31). I’ll let you fill in those blanks. It means that we sit at the feet of those who are despised by the world and allow them to teach and judge us.
In 1 Corinthians 6:4, Paul makes a very interesting statement that I happen to think has been mistranslated by just about every English version of the Bible. The Corinthians had been in a power struggle which has gotten ugly and turned litigious. Particularly scandalous to Paul is that believers have gone outside of the church to the pagan courts to rule in their disputes. Paul says in Greek, βιωτικὰ μὲν οὖν κριτήρια ἐὰν ἔχητε, τοὺς ἐξουθενημένους ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τούτους καθίζετε.
The NRSV translates this: “If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?” The NIV says, “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church?” It is very telling about the Bible translators of the NRSV and NIV that they could not conceive of the possibility that when Paul uses the phrase ἐξουθενημένους (“despised ones”), he might not be making his own moralistic judgment about the people he’s talking about. They must not have looked back to 1 Corinthians 1:28 where Paul uses the same word in a slightly different form, ἐξουθενημένα, to talk about the people whom God has anointed to “bring to nothing the things that are.”
If we take Paul’s statement at face value without making a moralistic judgment about the ἐξουθενημένους, then what Paul is saying literally is this: “Therefore if you have disputes about daily life, then let the despised ones in your church be the judges.” Recall that 1 Corinthians is the book where Paul exclaims, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). We think we’re so sophisticated, but the truth is that outsiders who have no status and thus no artifice could probably do a better job of resolving our silly squabbles with one another better than we could. And it’s their lack of worldly dignity and anxiety over appearances that makes the despised ones people we should listen to and take seriously.
When Jesus says, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44), He’s not commanding us to put on some latex gloves and dish out soup for poor people once a month so that we can feel good about ourselves. He’s telling us to put ourselves beneath “the least of our brothers and sisters” with whom He directly identifies Himself (Matthew 25:40). Let the despised ones be your judges!
Jesus is the king who makes Himself the despised one (Philippians 2:7) so that His disciples would learn to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit [but] rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). To follow our despised messiah, we need to proactively examine ourselves for “selfish ambitions” and “vain conceits” that are corrupting our motives for what we do. The freedom of discipleship requires our utter abandonment of worldly dignity, which all too often has a lot more currency inside the church than without. We need to be unashamed to be despised by others even within the church who have turned church into a place where worldly status is affirmed and reinforced rather than subverted and eschewed.
In any case, T.C. and Zach and I decided to band together in some fashion with other bloggers and rebel Christians who understand their Christian vocation similarly and are willing to be despised. I’m not sure where this will evolve. We’ll have to listen to the Holy Spirit. When John Wesley decided on April 2, 1739 to preach outside of the official Anglican pulpit in the streets and fields of England, he wrote in his journal: “At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.” Wesley was a despised one; there have been many others.
Oh and the Hebrew on the emblem is bani b’li shem, which means “sons with no name,” a phrase that expresses the aristocratic presumption that if you don’t belong to a family with a name, you’re clearly a bad or at least untrustworthy person. In the South particularly, we talk about whether so-and-so is “from a good family.” Job uses this phrase in Job 30:8 to describe the filthy peasants whose company he has been reduced to after he loses his princely wealth and status. Basically, it’s another way of saying ἐξουθενημένα. How does the NRSV translate this phrase? “A senseless, disreputable brood.” Yup. That’s us!