The Theology of Not Being a Hero: An Honest Rant on Mission and Ministry with People Experiencing Poverty

One of the most important theological discoveries of my life came years ago.  I was working with children, and in order to have some additional thoughtful discussions with them, I decided to try reading some of the books that they were reading.  That was how I came to read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.  I thought that the series was good – until I reached the end of the final book in the first series, which was titled The Last Olympian.  It was then that my mind changed and I began to think that the series was phenomenal.  I promised myself that if I ever had a kid I was going to get the Percy Jackson series for him or her.  (Also at this point, if you know Riordan, please inform him that he owes me $20 for this plug.)  Now – here’s the necessary spoiler that you’ll need in order to understand my point:  in the book, the main character, Percy, is given a prophecy, one that neither he nor the reader expects to hear.  The prophecy is this:  “You are not the hero.”  Indeed, it turns out that Percy is not the one to end the final battle with the titan Kronos.  As soon as I read that section, I knew that an important life lesson, an important theological point, had been made.  “You are not the hero.”

I wish that the words “You are not the hero” were printed directly in the Bible.  They aren’t.  But there are sections that hint at this same basic idea.  In fact, there are many of them, but I will settle for just one.  In 1st Corinthians, Paul has to continually drive at this same “non-hero” idea, though in different words and with different illustrations.  Paul writes, “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this:  One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; and another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; and still another, ‘I follow Christ.’  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized in the name of Paul?  I thank God that I did not baptize any of you…”  You know it’s really bad when one of the most blessed apostles of all time is thankful that he hasn’t baptized people.  But I digress.  Even over and against himself, Paul’s point is this:  “You are not the hero.”

So much of work with people in poverty comes with a cost:  the ego.  Programs, services, people – all worthwhile and all with good intentions – can fall victim to the ego.  The ego baptizes in its own name.  It is a danger for any and for all because we are indeed not perfect people.  As Paul says in Romans, all have fallen short of the glory of God.  Human beings mess up, and ego, through sin, trips us up quite often in working with people experiencing poverty.  Our programs become our gods.  Or perhaps we ourselves become our gods.  We follow those things and they lead us back to what is familiar, ourselves.  But I do not mean “ourselves” in the contemporary discover-and-embrace yourself type of way.  Rather, what I mean is that they lead us back to our own problems.  We all know those same familiar problems.  A lyricist in a song might express it with words such as “I can’t get myself to go away” (“Long Day” by Matchbox 20).  That is what I’m talking about.  We all know that feeling, stepping on our own toes – so to speak.  We are led back to our same old familiar problems.  (And that is possibly the beginning of repentance.)  So, in short, when we become the heroes, we step on ourselves.

The words, “You are not the hero,” call us back.  It is a biblical call.  In the end, it is not about we ourselves, it is not about our programs, it is not about ideas, but instead, it is about the real hero who is, in this case and not in the Percy Jackson book, Jesus.  Jesus is the hero.  He gets to be the hero.  He does not demand to be the hero.  He does not need to be the hero.  He does not appear to be the hero as he hangs on the cross.  Yet, he is exactly the hero, the one best equipped and most suited to be the hero.  The most heroic stance is the stance of not being the hero.  Heroes often become tyrants, and so the anti-hero, Jesus Christ, stands in the best position to be the real hero because he is not the hero that can become the tyrant.  In this and by this method, he proves he is the Son of God, because no human being survives being the anti-hero.  Anti-heroes are killed.  They are threatened.  They are maliciously gossiped about.  They have their bones broken and their clothes given away.  They are stripped of their belongings.  They are publicly flogged.  They are crucified.  They die.  Christ, however, rises again.  No mere human being can be that real hero, the anti-hero.  No mere human being can survive being the real hero, which is the anti-hero.

So – before I twist the human mind into a pretzel further – I want to get in my final point.  In serving with people experiencing poverty with and because of Jesus Christ, we must remember that we are not the heroes.  Jesus Christ is the hero.  When we are not the hero, we are open the real hero, Jesus Christ, and it is then that the road gets clearer.  It does not depend on us anymore, and then we can find ourselves led down the roads and streets by his Spirit.  We can find ourselves doing that which does appear to be best for his ministry and his work.  This could be called Martin Luther’s Theology of Humility, as initially outlined in his First Lectures on the Psalms, but to make it much more simple, I’m just going to call it this:  “The Theology of Not Being a Hero.”


    1. Thanks, Carole. But I should say that this is Pastor Mike, a friend of Pastor Dave. Though I think Dave could have probably written it better than I did, but on this idea, I think we’d both agree.

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