There is something about knowing and calling a person by name that gives dignity and worth to that individual. To be able to look someone in the eye and say his or her name communicates knowledge, oftentimes warmth, and a sense of value: I care enough to know your name.
Several years ago, my late husband and I worked among the nameless homeless in Boston. Like so many other homeless individuals all around our country, they were merely faces in a crowd, a nuisance to be avoided, or simply another panhandler asking for money. One gentleman in particular, sprawled against a building in a self-induced alcohol coma became a fixture for me and the other passers-by in Boston’s financial district. He was stepped over and generally regarded as simply another facet of the building against which his stupefied body slumbered. He had no name or value to me, or to anyone who daily passed him by on those cold streets; in fact, at times he seemed barely human.
That is until we began to be involved in this ministry that made a point out of calling people by name. As we participated in this ministry that saw the nameless among us, we learned their names: Bobby, Jim, Fred, John, Daniel, and Carl. We ate meals together and talked with each other. We listened and shared. We asked them to come in off the streets and into a place of warmth and solace. Soon, we couldn’t walk the streets of Boston without seeing these as persons we knew by name, these same ones who were formerly without. Now, I saw Bobby and Jim, Fred and John; they were known to me, and I to them.
It seems ironic to me, in light of this experience, that we know the names of Donald Trump, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Liliane Bettencort, Charles Koch, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Allen, and Ted Turner. Individuals that we will never know personally become synonymous with power, success, and renown. As a result, they are known and valued by most in our society simply because their names make the Forbes magazine billionaire list year after year.
In the Kingdom of God, though money and power can both be used for kingdom purposes, we aren’t known because of either of them. While we often recognize the names of those who are rich and powerful in our society, Jesus turns our society’s values on their head. He tells us the name of Lazarus, the poor man who lay at the gate of the rich man, who remains the nameless one in this parable. In this story, the rich man is the one not known to God despite all his worldly renown and power. Instead, Lazarus is known and received by God into Abraham’s bosom.
In our culture, our worth is largely determined in monetary measures and buying power. They are the things that our society teaches us to value, and we can name the names of those who attain high levels of both. But to experience the kingdom Jesus offers, to be known and called by name has nothing to do with what we can offer. Human dignity and worth are not defined by what one has or the power one holds. Rather, humanity is redefined by a God who serves, and a willingness to follow in his service. This is the humanity Jesus sets before us. The human Son of God comes in service and offers dignity and worth to those who might otherwise remain nameless. In a world that values status, power, and prestige it is indeed a daring act to follow. But to be known by the one “who came not to be served but to serve and offer his life as a ransom” is humanizing at its very fullest.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.