Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Four)

Researchers call it the “Last Place Aversion.” Why do people those near the bottom of any social status pyramid treat those beneath them badly? Why do people in low-income groups vote against their self-interest and support systems of inequality? Philosophers and historians have known about this human tendency for centuries. But the explanations offered have not been very convincing.

Until recently. In 2014 researchers[i] suggested that we humans really hate being in “last place.” We will even act against our self-interest if that keeps us out of the bottom of the heap. Nothing makes us happier than having a group or class to look down on. As we move up in status, last place anxiety decreases. As we move down in status, it increases.

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In one set of experiments, people were given random dollar amounts. Then the experimenters showed them where they landed on the dollar hierarchy. Each subject then chose one of two strategies. One strategy gives the player more money as almost a sure thing. The other strategy is higher risk but gives the player the chance to move up in the hierarchy.

All the players chose the almost sure thing except for the bottom two. The last-place player wants to move up. The second-to-the-last place player wants to keep from moving down. Both players are willing to tolerate higher risk than average. The one hates being in last place. The other hates the thought of being in last place.

Last place aversion.

Another experiment is a money-transfer game. The players get random amounts of money. Each player has one dollar less than the next highest and one dollar more than the next lowest. Everyone knows their place on the money ladder. Players receive two dollars more. Each player has to give their extra two dollars either to the person directly above them or directly below them on the money ladder.

If I give the two dollars to the person above me, that person will move higher on the ladder (except for the top person). If I give two dollars to the person below me, I fall one place on the ladder. On average, players offer up or down at about the same rate regardless of position.

That’s true except for one person on the ladder. Can you guess which one? That’s right. The second-to-the-last person almost never gives two dollars to the last place person.

Last place aversion.

Of course, you might say, those are games played by undergraduates in psychology programs. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? Think about people in favor of or against raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center did surveys to see which lower income group was more likely to oppose increasing the minimum wage. Which group do you imagine was more likely to oppose that increase? You guessed it. Those people being paid just above minimum wage.

Last place aversion.

Well, Pastor, you may say, that’s mildly interesting. But what’s it got to do with anything here today? I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus turns decisively toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. On the way, Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria. Samaria was the territory between Jesus’ homeland of Galilee in the north and Judea, the location of Jerusalem in the south. Jews regarded the Samaritans as half-breed heretics and traitors. They intermarried with conquerors over the centuries. And they worshiped at a temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were regarded by many Jews as the lowest of the low. The urgency of Jesus’ mission is underscored by the fact that he passes through Samaria.

It was ancient tradition that local folks, regardless of their background, would offer hospitality to travelers. In the first village they come across, Jesus’ followers are rejected and refused.

James and John regard the rebuff as the highest possible insult. I can imagine something like this going through their minds. “We may be hicks from the Galilean boonies and backwaters. But at least we’re not those damned Samaritans!” I’m not swearing here. At least some Jews were sure that Samaritans were cursed by God.

Now we get to one of the awful parts of the text. “Lord,” James and John ask, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” We don’t have to put up with such treatment from those low-lifes. If we do, those bottom feeders will be one up on us. And we can’t let that happen.

Last place aversion.

That psychological reality is written into the fabric of the New Testament. You may not know it, but it is written into the fabric of American history as well.

In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against wealthy landowners in the colony of Virginia. Late in the rebellion, as things weren’t going well, Bacon offered the promise of freedom to white and black indentured servants and Native Americans if they would fight on his side. More than seventy men of all colors took him up on the promise.

In the end, Bacon’s forces lost, and Bacon died from typhus fever. But the wealthy white men learned a powerful lesson. If all the folks at the bottom ever joined forces, they could overthrow the ladder of privilege that kept them all in their place.

The wealthy folks separated out the poor whites from the Blacks and Native Americans. They offered the poor whites legal, economic, and social privileges. The price of those privileges was cooperation in enslaving the Blacks and the Native Americans.

The historian, James Rice, described the situation like this. The alliance of rich and poor Whites “forced Indians and Africans to shoulder the burden of resolving the tensions and divisions within white colonial society.”[ii] Clyde Ford says that “liberty and equality are possible for the privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation,” Ford concludes, “is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.”[iii]

Last place aversion.

This is very odd for us who follow Jesus. Just a few verses before our text, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest. They may all have felt superior to the accursed Samaritans, but there was still the matter of their internal pecking order.

Jesus puts a child on the seat beside him. “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells the disputing disciples in Luke 9:48, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

For the least among you is the greatest. We’re Last Place Lovers. That’s the discipleship standard. And it’s one of the things that makes us Jesus followers so weird. But how in the world can it be true?

If there’s anything we can say about the God we meet in Jesus, it’s this. You are first in God’s heart. So am I. So is every bit of this beloved Creation. There’s no point in trying to protect my place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus already has that covered.

That’s the good news for today. Last Place Aversion is a waste of time. We’re Last Place Lovers, because we’re all first place with God. So, James and John, the only heavenly fire you’ll get is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That fire calls people of every time and place into God’s beloved family. And in that family, everyone is in first place.

What does this mean for us? I’ll make a few brief suggestions. When I’m worried about my spot on the ladder, I’m getting this Jesus-following thing wrong. The Spirit helps me let go of that worry every day.

Whenever we get the chance to dismantle and demolish human hierarchies, we Jesus followers should be part of that work. These are the things that Paul calls the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I’m thinking about racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism for starters. We live in a time when some folks want to put all the old hierarchies back in place. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Whenever I get the chance to lift up anyone in a last place, I need to jump at the chance. That’s what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. I pray that you and I can be bear that fruit fully and daily. Amen.

[i] “LAST-PLACE AVERSION”: EVIDENCE AND REDISTRIBUTIVE IMPLICATIONS. Ilyana Kuziemko Ryan W. Buell Taly Reich Michael I. Norton. Working Paper 17234. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17234. NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 July 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Clyde W. Ford, Of Blood and Sweat, page 117.

[iii] Ibid.

Text Study for Luke 8:26-39 (Part One)

Who are you? It seems like a simple question.

My name is Lowell Hennigs. Yet, that doesn’t really answer the question. A name is a label. It’s not an identity. A name is handy handle to holler across a crowded room. But it doesn’t tell you who I am.

At times, people thought names meant more. A name could describe or even determine a person’s character. It could identify an ancestor’s vocation. It’s not hard to see where people got last names like Butcher, Baker, Carpenter, or Plumber. Even now, parents hope children’s names might matter. We name our children sometimes to carry our hopes and dreams for their futures.

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Yet, there’s more to me than my name. My name is an identifier, not an identity. “I am large,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes.” Think for a moment of your multitudes. I am a spouse, a parent, a friend (or enemy). I am a neighbor. I’m retired and still a pastor. I am white, cisgender, straight, and male. I’m a citizen. I’m a Lutheran Christian. And much more.

Some of my selves work together. Others contradict or even conflict. Some of my selves are dominant and obvious. Some are in the background or mere relics of my past. Some of my selves are more masks than identities. Someone asks me, “Who are you?” That’s hard to say. Identity is a moving target, a work in progress, a complicated dance.

Jesus travels from his home country of Jewish Galilee to the Gentile territory of Gerasa. Gerasa is on the Other Side. It’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee physically and geographically. Gerasa is also on the Other Side in religious, political, and ethnic terms. Jesus enters foreign territory. Who knows what might happen in such a strange place?

Jesus barely hits the ground, and all hell breaks loose. That’s not a profanity. It’s a literal description. A local, filled with demons, accosts Jesus. It seems that Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man. The spirit, still in the man, falls at Jesus’ feet in obedience and begs for mercy. Jesus asks him, “What is your name?”

It’s not clear if Jesus is addressing the man or the spirit at this moment. But the spirit answers. “Legion,” the spirit replies, “for (Luke tells us) many demons had entered him.” Legion? That’s an odd name. What’s going on here?

At the start of the story, we might have considered the man mentally ill. We wouldn’t be far wrong. The man’s neighbors had tried to protect him and themselves by restraining the man. If they didn’t care about his welfare, they might have simply put him out of his misery. But they tried to help him.

Those efforts failed. The man was so desperate for freedom that he rejected the limitations even of clothing. He fled human company to be free or to protect others from himself, or both. He wandered in a local graveyard as one who was already dead.

I can imagine such a man on the streets of our city. Most of us no longer attribute such a condition to demonic possession. Yet, with all our scientific advances, we don’t manage some of our neighbors who battle their own Legions much better than did the first-century Gerasenes.

Jesus asked him (or them), “What is your name?” The reply is no accident. My identity comes, in part, from inside myself. But it also comes from outside of me. It comes from the people and systems and forces that connect me to the world that isn’t me. The demonic name reflects a system and forces that are literally driving the man out of his mind.

My family has formed me. My communities shape me. I don’t create the laws and rules, values and histories, of this land. I didn’t sign up in advance to be white or male or cis or straight. For that matter, I didn’t check the boxes for left-handed or partially color-blind. I didn’t whip up Christianity or democracy or capitalism in my spare time. Yet, all these externals make me, at least in part, what I am.

Nor did I create the racism in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t manufacture the homophobia, the transphobia, or the misogyny in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t invent the classism, the ableism, the imperialism, or all the other “isms” that shape my life and worldview. Yet, they are part of who I am. These forces seek to possess me, to use me, even to destroy me. If these forces get a deep enough hold on me, they can literally drive me out of my mind.

For the man among the tombs, the external forces wore the face of the Roman Empire. A legion may have been an army of demons. It was also six thousand well-armed and highly trained Imperial invaders. They controlled thought and extorted taxes. The man lived with a system that demanded obedience and conformity on the pain of death. This system called violence peace, extortion prosperity, and oppression freedom. Such a system would make any person more than a little crazy.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go. I hope that’s a thought you’ll take with you. The only question is where the expelled Legion will land. Jesus allows them temporary refuge in a herd of hogs. But the poor piggies cannot tolerate the invasion any better than the man in the graveyard. The demons join the pigs in a watery grave.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go.

Now we see the man, for the first time, for who he really is. We see him for himself. His neighbors find him healed and saved. He’s fully dressed and completely lucid. Most important, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Who does that posture mean in the gospels? Disciples sit at Jesus’ feet. Jesus sets the man free. In that freedom, the man becomes himself. And he becomes a Jesus-evangelist in his hometown.

What is your name?

What makes you “you”? Paul wrestles with the Galatian Christians over this question. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The real key to our identity is not who we are but whose we are. The man became most fully himself when he took his place as a disciple at the feet of Jesus. What might that mean for us?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor. He participated in the German resistance plot to remove Adolf Hitler during World War II. The plot failed. The Nazis threw Bonhoeffer in prison. He was hanged there on April 9, 1945.

In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters reflections, and sermons. He also wrote poetry. One poem was titled, “Who Am I?” Bonhoeffer knew he was not only the bold disciple face he presented to his captors and cellmates. He knew he was also afraid, depressed, lonely, weary, empty, and ready for it all to end. Like Whitman, Bonhoeffer “contained multitudes.”

Bonhoeffer ends his poem with these words. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” Bonhoeffer had no time for illusions. Real life tears away the false and fragile identities we create. What is left, for me at least, is this calm assurance. Whoever I am, O God, I am yours.

I hope you can take that Good News with you today.

So, we aren’t imprisoned by identities we create to defend ourselves and dominate others. Nor are we defined and determined by identities that others try to force upon us. We can be freed from the legions that want to destroy us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul writes, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

If my primary identity gives me power, position, and privilege, that identity is bondage, not freedom. On this one hundred fifty-seventh anniversary of Juneteenth, we can celebrate with our Black sisters and brothers a triumph of human identity over the forces of power, position, and privilege. If you don’t know and celebrate the story of Juneteenth, I hope you will seek out the resources to help you know and understand.

Last Friday was the seventh anniversary of the murder of the Emanuel Nine is Charleston, South Carolina. This was an example of White Christian Nationalist identity as dominance and death. It’s clear that we White people continue to live in and benefit from a system that believes difference is for domination. That system of White supremacy is demonic and continues to make people crazy in a variety of ways. Faithful disciples reject that system and work to dismantle it.

Who are you? That’s the question of the day. How do my actions and commitments answer that question? I hope you’ll spend time thinking about your answers this week.