The stories that captivated as a child all featured a leader – or, sometimes, a whole team of of them – who made bold decisions, took decisive action, and generally drove the plot. These special individuals were portrayed as changing the course of history.
Whether in the tales of ancient heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus or in our portrayals of today’s characters, like Barak Obama and Steve Jobs, our shared mythology teaches us that history is made by larger-than-life individuals, people who make earth-shattering decisions on a world stage.
Not surprisingly, Christians have turned Jesus into this kind of character, too. In popular mythology, Jesus becomes the greatest hero of all. With the eyes of the world upon him, Jesus faced down all the rulers and authorities of his day, triumphing over them with his powerful message and the power of his resurrection. Raised to life by God and vindicated in the eyes of those who believe, Jesus sits at the right hand of Power, the ultimate image of heroism.
But is this a full picture of who Jesus is? Is Jesus merely the ultimate hero, the my-dad-is-tougher-than-your-dad comeuppance to Marduk and Zeus? Is Jesus our hero because he is the biggest, the strongest, the best?
When I read about Jesus in the Bible, I see a great man of great moments, in some ways the epitome of our cherished hero archetype. But that is not all. I also notice that when the powerful men of his day question him, he remains silent. When they demand signs and wonders, he refuses. When flattered, he rejects praise.
Jesus spends his time with the people on the edges – the lepers and tax collectors, women and fishermen. These folks don’t come looking for fancy talk and impressive signs; they are too desperate for that. They know their need for healing, daily bread and concrete justice. Never one to break a bruised reed, Jesus meets these crowds with true compassion and friendship. And miracles do happen.
But our society doesn’t train us to expect a hero like Jesus. While we’re busy watching for a champion who can beat up the bad guys, pitch a no-hitter, or invent a cure for cancer, we may miss the simple acts of heroism that are taking place every day on the margins of our great national drama, with the millions of ordinary people who stand just off stage.
This kind of heroism is not for a special elite; it is for anyone who is willing to get their hands dirty in small, daily acts of service to others. This is the type of heroism that we can only participate in by surrendering our desire to be noticed.
I remember when I was in middle school, there was an amazing woman named Dorothy, probably in her seventies or eighties at the time, who tutored me in algebra. I was the worst student. I would literally fall asleep in her house when I should have been completing my lessons. She just woke me up and told me to get back to work. I had no conception of the disrespect I was communicating through my behavior, much less how much love she was showing me by not kicking me out of her house!
Dorothy was a hero, not in the world’s sense, but in the spirit of Jesus. She wasn’t seeking recognition, or even a big triumph that would boost her self esteem. She simply saw that my family was in need, and she helped out by sharing her time and expertise. She demonstrated the humility and endurance to put up with me week after week, even though I didn’t deserve it. She loved me without expectation of return.
What would my life be like if I hadn’t been loved by Dorothy? What would I be like today if I truly immersed myself in her kind of love and service to others?