Many of our lives are governed by fear: “What will others say?” Christ is almost ruthless in the way he deals with human respect, i.e. the desire to please others and gain their approval or the fear of displeasing and possibly facing their wrath.
Many in his time also refrained from following Jesus – though they were convinced in their hearts of his claim – through fear that they would be ostracised by their communities. He said to them:
“You like to have praise from one another, but you do not try to win praise from God: how then can you believe? (Jn. 5, 44)
St. John’s Gospel brings this out more explicitly than the three other Gospels.
“Even then many Jewish leaders believed in Jesus; but, because of the Pharisees, they did not profess it openly, so as not to be put out of the meeting houses. They loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (Jn. 12, 42-43).
Jesus himself ignored the tradition of no communication between Jews and Samaritans when he spoke fearlessly to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, thereby showing freedom from human respect. “Jesus breaks the merciless, social and religious fetter of division”. It is in a way analogous to a Brahmin asking for water from a Harijan woman at a village well in India. For the Jews did not “associate with Samaritans” (Jn. 4, 9) and hated them. (Jn. 8, 48).
When the man born blind was cured and came to believe in Jesus,
“the Jews would not believe that the man had been blind and had gained his sight, without first sending for his parents and asking them, ‘Is this man really your son who you say was born blind? If so, how is it that he is now able to see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that he is our son and we know he was born blind, but we don’t know how it is that he can see now, or who opened his eyes. He is old enough: let him speak for himself.’ His parents spoke like this for fear of the Jews, who had already agreed to expel from the synagogue anyone who should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. This was why his parents said, '‘he is old enough; ask him’” (Jn. 9, 18-23).
Pilate, the Roman Governor, condemned Jesus to death – even though he called him “this just man” and so put his prestige before honesty, the favour of men before his conscience.
Peter, his disciple, denied Christ through human respect – though Jesus had tried to teach the value of suffering and shunning honour. He “began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him: “Heaven preserve you Lord” , he said, “this must not happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter. “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s” (Mt. 16, 21-23).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches clearly that even if we are persecuted for what is right, we should stick to the truth and consider ourselves blessed or happy. “Rejoice and be glad, because a great reward is kept for you” (Mt. 5, 11-12). We often however prefer to seek our rewards on this earth from erring men like ourselves.
That is why Jesus warns us not to seek praise even in our good works. The Gita’s teachings of Nishkam Karma or selfless service is taught by Jesus too: “Be careful not to parade your good works before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6, 1-4).
Jesus teaches us how to take the lowest place rather than seek a place of honour. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14, 7-11).
Had not Jesus learnt himself how alluring is the temptation to power and honour, when the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world from a high mountain and said : “I will give you all these if you fall at my feet and worship me”? He shunned the temptation to honour by replying: “Be off, Satan! For Scripture says you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.”
When Jesus had fed the large crowds on five loaves and two fishes, the people said of him: “This really is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, who could see they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, escaped back to the hills by himself (Jn, 6, 15). How different from us who run after honour, esteem, popularity, gain!