Sun, Jan 10, 2021

What defines us?

Duration:12 mins 20 secs

“So, what do you do for a living?”


You have just been introduced to someone––

perhaps the friend of a friend––

or, you’re at a party and you have met someone for the first time.

After the initial ‘hello’… 

and the exchange of names—

which you may or may not remember––

and perhaps some comment about the weather or something equally inane…

that question inevitably comes:

“So, what do you do for a living?”

For many people, it may not be a difficult or embarrassing question.

If your line of work is interesting, exciting, or exotic it might actually help the conversation––

say, if you’re an astronaut…

or a freelance war correspondent…

or a champion athlete.

But, you know, for some people, it can be a very awkward question––

because of the sort of job that they actually do.

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“Ummm… I’m a garbage collector”;

or, “I’m an embalmer”;

or, “I’m a minister”;

or, “I’m just a housewife”.

Respond like that and it’s sure to kill the conversation!

But it can be an especially awkward question if you’re not working.

In my first year as a veterinarian, I was unemployed for three months…

and I went to a party at a friend’s place and met someone for the first time…

and, inevitably, that question came:

“So, what do you do for a living?”

And, after a brief and embarrassed hesitation, I answered, “I’m a vet”.

But, because I wasn’t working––

and because I was feeling frustrated that I wasn’t working––

it hurt.

It was like I had been punched in the guts.

It seemed to reinforce the feeling that I had that I was a failure;

that I was useless;

that I was worthless;

that, because I wasn’t working, I didn’t really count.

Granted, it may just be a throw-away line––

an attempt at making polite conversation…

or a way of trying to get to know someone…

but, you know…



it’s actually an insidious question.

The message that it sends is that we are defined by what we do––

that our worth as a person comes from what we do.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that many men… 

in particular… 

have found it hard to retire––

because that means surrendering their identity…

that means losing their sense of value… 

and their sense of self-worth.

And, perhaps, that’s why long-term unemployment has such a demoralising…

and disempowering effect.

In so many ways–– 

often seemingly innocuous––

our society sends us the message that we are defined… and judged… 

and valued… 

by what we do.


In the first century world… 

people were defined according to the family into which they were born…

and the place where they were born.

That was far more important that what they did… because people seldom had any choice about their occupation.

That, too, was defined by the family into which they were born…

and where they were born.

Beyond that, they were defined by the members of their village.

In short, you were who people said that you were;

and who people said that you were determined how you saw yourself…

and how you acted.


At the start of Mark’s Gospel… 

the author simply has Jesus coming to John the Baptist at the Jordan.

In Mark’s Gospel, there are no birth stories.

There are no stories about Mary and Joseph…

no mention of angels, or shepherds, or Wise Men.

There are no predictions about the baby’s destiny––

nothing to suggest that anything out of the ordinary took place.

Nor is there any description of Jesus growing up.

In Mark’s Gospel, the adult Jesus simply appears––

out of nowhere…


And, when he does appear in the wilderness beside the Jordan River… 

he doesn’t speak.

He doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

He’s simply one of many who came seeking John the Baptist.

And there’s nothing in the author’s story to suggest that John saw anything special in Jesus.

Nor is there any suggestion that the crowd saw him as anything special.

Nor is there anything to suggest that Jesus saw himself as anything special.

There’s no sense that he was aware of any higher calling or destiny––

certainly not at that point.


So, how would Jesus have been defined?

If his contemporaries looked at him, what would they have seen?


They would have seen a poor, unsophisticated, country bumpkin;

a hick, from the small backwater of Nazareth;

the son of an insignificant peasant labourer––

the first century Palestinian equivalent of ‘poor white trash’;

a nobody, unworthy of any attention.

He was just one of many peasants longing for a better world…

yearning for a change in society…

and wanting to make a commitment to be part of that—

because that’s what John’s baptism was about.

Jesus came to do what so many others were doing.

But, in coming and being baptised, the author claims that something extraordinary happened;

he claims that Jesus encountered the Living God––




Coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 

And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’”.

The author suggests that this experience was a turning point for Jesus…

because, in it, God redefined who Jesus was.

Rather than his family, his village, or his society defining his identity…

God now defines who Jesus is:

You are my Son, the Beloved”

Now, the word translated as “beloved” can mean “dearly loved”…

or it can mean “one worthy of love”.

No longer is Jesus just some poor, country bumpkin…

the son of an insignificant peasant labourer…

a nobody––

now, he’s one whom God loves dearly;

one whom God declares to be worthy of love.

Being told that you’re loved…

being told that you’re worthy of love––

that can change a person.

And it did.

The author suggests that, because of this experience, Jesus understood himself differently…

and he grasped that he had a different destiny to fulfil—

one not defined by his society’s expectations or restrictions.

Being re-defined by God, Jesus began to live out his new definition––

he went where God led him…

he went out into the wilderness…

to a place of danger and risk…

to a place on the margins of society…

to a place where he believed that he would encounter God.

This was the beginning of his ministry.

All because he was told that he was loved;

that he was worthy of love.


Too often, in our society, it’s our occupation that defines us.

It’s what we do that gives us a sense of worth.

But this story reminds us, that that’s not how God defines people.

God doesn’t value people for what they do…

or don’t do.

God doesn’t define people according to human values or expectations.

God doesn’t even define people according to how they define themselves.

To God, we are all beloved children;

we are all worthy of love.

But, like Jesus, nothing is going to change until we believe it––

until we know it––

at the core and centre of our beings;

until we allow that to shape our self-perception and self-worth;

and how we perceive every other person as well.

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