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Jesus and the individual

30 November, 1999

Sean O’Conaill draws attention to Christ’s stress on the importance of the individual, but he warns that this is radically different from present-day individualism. Instead, it is an invitation to join Christ on his “downward journey”.

Most of us are Christians as the result of infant baptism long preceding our years of awareness. This can easily be justified theologically, but it has the drawback that as individuals we may never arrive at a moment of conscious and free – and adult – commitment. This can disguise the fact, clear from the gospels, that Jesus meets and challenges us as individuals.

By this I mean that Jesus is always on the move through the society of his day, meeting with individuals through whom he gradually reveals himself. He does not begin by creating an administrative bureaucracy, setting up schools, drafting a catechism, acquiring an impressive residence, and ruling by edict. This would have isolated him from the real people of his own time, and placed him at the mercy of intermediaries. Instead, he moves among the ordinary individuals of his own time, calling them often by name – for example, Zacchaeus or Bartimaeus. Through their interaction with him he reveals himself.

The Prodigal Son
Moreover, he teaches usually in parables rather than in generalities, using the stories of individual characters to catch the interest of the individual mind. We are drawn to the Prodigal Son because he is an individual with whom, as individuals, we can identify.

And this particular parable is about the problem of individualism – the young man who abandons the home in which he has been raised to make an impression upon the world. He travels high and fast upon his inheritance until this is exhausted and he finds himself attending pigs who are better fed than he is.

Set as it is in a rural society very different from our mostly citified existence, we can miss the application of this parable to our own time, specifically the problem of 20th century individualism. The young man in the parable is, like most young men, on the upward journey to adulation. Proud of his own resources, inherited from the Father of all life, he travels far and high – but then discovers that the esteem he had supposed he has earned is an illusion.

Yet the parable assures us that the Father, who loves the young man’s freedom, will never cease scanning the horizon for his return. The mercy and goodness of the Fathe extends beyond the self-centredness of the younger son. The son’s return is a downward journey his willingness to accept humiliation in return for the safety of a servant’s life. But the Father does not wait for the son to complete that humiliating descent. He runs to him and embraces him.

Concern for the individual
And there is another parable that expresses the same idea – that of the lost sheep. The individual is of such great importance that the good shepherd will risk the ninety-nine to go in search of the one.

Concern for the individual is present throughout the gospels, suggesting that Jesus is highlighting the dignity of the individual person. And to those he has selected as his closest disciples, he persistently teaches the importance of the downward journey. “Everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be made great.” (Luke 14: 7-11). “The greatest in the kingdom is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child.” (Matthew 18:1-4). “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

In John’s gospel this insistence upon the downward journey reaches its climax on the evening before the crucifixion.

“Jesus knew that the Father had given him complete power; he knew that he had come from God and was going to God. So he rose from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel round his waist. Then he poured some water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel round his waist. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him’ Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?’ Jesus said ‘You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.’ Peter declared, ‘Never at any time will you wash my feet!’ ‘If I do not wash your feet,’ Jesus answered, ‘you will no longer be my disciple.”’ (John 13:3-8).

The association of ‘complete power’ with menial service is a complete upending of the social pyramid of the ancient world, and of all future pyramids also. The power of God will change the world by dignifying service, freely given, above the power to command service.

Upending the pyramid
The crucifixion on the following day is the culmination of Jesus’ downward journey. It is also the supreme means by which he reaches out to us as individuals. He is bent upon upending the pyramid of esteem that ‘the world’ always is.

This is easily proven by our own experience. We do not fully ‘get’ the crucifixion until we ourselves experience extreme suffering. It is in a moment of complete brokenness that we understand that it is through the cross that God reaches down to us, to show solidarity with our pain. There appears to be no other way to this moment of personal enlightenment. In the pain of the individual, that person meets the Jesus who travelled the downward journey to its most bitter end.

And this in turn helps to explain the downward journey of Jesus. It is a journey in search of all individuals, in all times – those individual lost sheep who cry out. Just as the upward journey can dignify only a tiny few,” the downward journey dignifies all, specifically those at the base of the pyramid of wealth and esteem. This truth is given its gospel expression in the Sermon on the Mount. The beatitudes are a statement of divine solidarity with all those at the base of the pyramid of esteem. In the Kingdom of God there is no pyramid of dignity – just as there was none among the disciples.

The eternal relevance of Christ
It follows from this that nothing could be more relevant to the present problems of Ireland, and the west generally, than Christianity. We are a society that encourages individuals to embark upon an upward journey to success, defined as the respect of the world. But this journey will lead inevitably to more casualties than successes, and the meaninglessness of the world will become more and more apparent. At the very moment that this is understood, the downward journey and crucifixion of Jesus begin to make sense.

Yet they remain in another sense profoundly mysterious. From where did the inspiration and strength for the downward journey come? It was a journey towards personal annihilation in human terms. We should know nothing of this crucified man, just as we know nothing about virtually all of the 6,000 slaves whom Crassus crucified. The very fact that we know so much about this particular journey is astonishing. The fact that it happened, and that we know it happened, has altered human history forever. Our part in this transformation of the world is to perceive and incarnate a downward journey of our own, in the service of the casualties of the upward journey.


This article first appeared in Reality (July/August 1999), a Redemptorist publication.


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