If I were to ask, “Who are you?” what would you say? Perhaps you would start with your name, your family origins, or your cultural identity. If pressed, you might identify with your religion (if you have one) or social subculture. The answer to such a question is heavily influenced by your family upbringing and the community you grew up in. But one of the most important factors regarding our self-identity is found in the stories we tell about ourselves.
In ancient times, the Romans told the story of Romulus and Remus—two sons who were spawned from an illicit rendezvous between the god Mars and an exiled princess. The two were allegedly orphaned and then mothered by a wolf and, finally, grew to become warriors. Eventually, Romulus killed Remus because of a dispute over the selection of a hill on which to establish a new town. After his fratricide, Romulus went on to found the city of Rome. Thus, the city’s mythological foundations were built on blood. Unlike our modern society, which would be unlikely to stomach such a sordid tale, the Romans were proud of their heritage, particularly if they were full citizens. As citizens, they held the rights to marry and own property, as well as the rights to vote and hold public office.
In the New Testament, Acts 22 recounts the story of the apostle Paul being arrested in Jerusalem after preaching to a crowd-turned-mob. The Roman commander ordered that Paul be flogged and interrogated to discover why he had caused such an uproar. As they prepared to flog him, Paul asked a nearby centurion, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (verse 25). This revelation of Paul’s citizenship so shocked the Roman soldiers that they released him immediately.
Contrast this with the Roman attitude toward slaves, women, and non-Romans. French sociologist Marcel Mauss describes their existence like this: “He has no personality. He does not own his body; he has no ancestors, no name, no cognomen, no goods of his own.” Women had a limited form of citizenship, as did non-Romans, but they were not equal to Roman freemen. Wherever you stood on the social ladder, however, you were expected to obey the rules and not reach too far above your station. It was a world of incredible economic imbalance with both extreme poverty and outrageous luxury. Social barriers were maintained to keep the wealthy and powerful wealthy and powerful. The message was clear: some people are just better than others.
a new story
This is first-century context that Jesus of Nazareth entered. He seemed intent on breaking the mold. He ministered across a wide range of demographics, engaging with Jews, foreigners, the terminally ill, the disabled, women, and more. His radical generosity and inclusiveness continually perplexed and offended His disciples and His enemies alike. Jesus’ first-century audience didn’t understand that He was operating in the context of a different story.
The author of Genesis tells us that the first human (Adam) was formed “from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word adam sounds like another Hebrew word, adamah, which means “ground.” God fashioned human beings from the ground up, creating them “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).
You might think that in the next moment, God would have put Adam and Eve to work building Him a shrine or a temple. But God did something unexpected. He “crowned them with glory and honor” and made them “rulers over” the earth (Psalm 8:4–9). God wanted to share His glory and power with human beings, allowing them to rule the planet by His side. But there is one more important point to note: Like Adam and Eve, all human beings occupy the same position of high honor.
That’s why when Jesus burst into the Roman world, the breaking of social barriers between classes was a seismic development. Jesus upended the social order. He said: “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). To a first-century person in the Roman Empire, the very idea of humbling oneself to the status of a slave (who was deemed not even a real person) was akin to social suicide. And yet, Jesus’ message took hold. The rich shared with the poor, and people found a new identity: not in accomplishments and wealth or in failures and successes, but in Jesus Christ the Messiah.
So what is your story? Is it a story of disappointment and regret? Have you bought into the lies you’ve been told, such as you’re not smart enough, beautiful enough, or athletic enough? Or that you belong in a box—the status that society puts you in? Have your broken relationships convinced you that you’re not worthy of love? Have you been told that you’re damaged beyond repair?
I’ve got good news for you. Jesus longs to write a new chapter in your life. Your past history—your story—need no longer define you. Jesus is close by to offer new horizons of restoration, joy, and hope.
Whatever label may have been thrown your way—misfit, failure, loser—leave it behind. Remember that Jesus values you so much that He died for you. You are no less His child than anyone who has ever lived.
Jesse Herford is a pastor and associate editor for the Australia/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times®. He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife, Carina, and their miniature schnauzer, Banjo.