What do Benjamin Franklin, Ed Sheeran, and Stephen Colbert have in common? They each have doctoral degrees. None of them, however, earned the degree by undergoing the academic process. Each of them received honorary degrees. There is ongoing debate as to whether or not a person should use the title “doctor” if their doctorate was honorary. If an institution granted such a degree, so goes the argument, then they are deeming the recipient worthy of the title, and therefore one should use it freely. After all, they worked so hard in life that an institution recognized and rewarded them with the prestigious honor. Generally speaking, however, this way of thinking largely comes from those who have been awarded such a degree without earning it academically. Those who went through the rigors of academics to earn the degree view the use of the honorary title on a range from “needs and asterisk” to tacky to unethical. Proper etiquette is to designate the degree as honorary when listing the letters after the name of such a recipient. Ben Franklin, however, enjoyed being called Dr. Franklin.
Today, the title Reverend could mean different things to different people. Among historical denominations, a Master of Divinity degree is prerequisite before going through an ordination process where one’s written and oral defense of faith must stand up to the scrutiny of ordained peers and denominational leaders. Depending on the tradition, this can range from a long, challenging process to an incredibly long, excruciating process that ends with a meaningful ceremony at which point the title is bestowed. The point is that it is difficult to achieve. In some churches, especially Baptist and independent congregations, the local church can ordain whomever they deem worthy of the title. It is usually handled with great seriousness and is typically given to pastor-types. Since the educational criteria is not necessarily required, the title may not be recognized by other churches or denominations, which creates problems at times, especially when moving from one ministry to another. Finally, if you want the title, you can also get it for free online with a mouse click. Most people who acquire it this way do so in order to perform a marriage ceremony. Others do it to impress folks. For taxation purposes, the IRS, interestingly, primarily defines ordination in terms of the role performed. If a person does not perform the duties typically assigned to pastors – traditionally defined by the handling of the sacraments in a corporate worship setting – they don’t pass muster. The “Reverend” before a person’s name carries different weight depending upon what letters come after that person’s name.
Kyle Barwan was got arrested for more than taking a woman’s money. He was cuffed and stuffed because he stole someone’s valor. Barwan worked his way into his victim’s life and home with the help of a military uniform. He told her stories of his military experience, close calls and heroism, which certainly must have impressed her. They moved in together, and the woman got to know him more and more with each story he shared. After a while, however, she noticed some details that didn’t add up. She did some research, and soon thereafter called the police. She believed that her live-in boyfriend was a fraud. She was right. Barwan had never served in the military. But he sure enjoyed the respect people gave him when he pretended that he did.
What is your response to the three subjects above – honorary doctorates, mouse click ordination, and stolen valor? Why do people get upset about these alleged infractions? Why do people want the titles, anyway?
By the time the Gospel of Matthew was finalized and written onto scroll, Jesus had been gone for over three decades. A lot changed, yet a lot stayed the same. The Pharisee branch of Judaism was in charge of “running” the official religion, and scribes (think Jewish Law Lawyers) were handling the details. The Sadducee branch that held power in Jesus’ day was gone – literally wiped out when the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. after a Jewish uprising caused Rome to come down hard – extremely hard – on the city. So, there was a massive changing of the guard, so to speak. The Pharisees represented a more rural mentality than urban. Most were not formally educated. The title Rabbi was mostly honorific at that time – it did not become a formal, earned title until later in the first century C.E. Essentially, the title meant “highly esteemed teacher” in the minds of those who attributed it to people in Jesus’ day. Of course, there were well known scholars in that period, but that does not mean that most people who were given the title Rabbi were necessarily formally educated. There are numerous examples of this in Jewish antiquity, and should be allowed to be appreciated for the honor it meant to bestow even if it would not meet our standards of education-based titles today.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ crosshairs at that time were reveling in their title. When we place our identity and worth in a title, we know we are vulnerable. If that identity is threatened in some way, we go down with it. Somewhere inside of us we know this is true, even of titles that seem solid. If it’s popularity we’re building on, we’re one nasty Facebook post, Snapchat or Tweet away from being cast to the bottom of the heap. If it’s our successful business or practice, we’re one bad Yelp review or allegation away from trouble. Do we even need to talk about physical health? Nope. Even if we build a long career where everything goes smoothly all the way to retirement, we will soon discover that we will become another picture on a wall somewhere that will very soon lose influence, and eventually fade from memory of the organization we served. No matter what the title, we are vulnerable because titles fade. Because we intuitively know this, so long as we are building on the foundation of title we are naturally prone to puff ourselves up and will be defensive when it is threatened. No wonder these Pharisees were so threatened by Jesus – he was constantly pointing out their vulnerability simply by speaking about the truth of life, as was the case below.
Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. "The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God's Law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit-and-polish veneer.
"Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called 'Doctor' and 'Reverend.'
"Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of 'Father'; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven. And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
"Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. – Matthew 23:1-12 (The Message)
Jesus was calling for the opposite of putting our stock in title. He was calling us to embrace the fact that we are all very human, very fallible, and therefore vulnerable. When we embrace the fact that we are vulnerable instead of trying hard to mask it, we are no longer captive to the fear of failure. This is what servanthood is all about. We do a lot of things to avoid paying attention to this vulnerability because it’s painful to think about. Yet avoiding reality only adds to our sense of vulnerability, which makes it even harder and more painful to live. So, we self-medicate in a wide variety of ways. The result? We are the most overweight, over-spent, and over medicated people in our country’s history.
According to the highly respected social sciences academic Brene Brown, vulnerability is actually something we need to embrace, not avoid. People who are the most alive, who experience the most of the things we want the most in life – love, joy, peace, meaning, etc. – embrace their vulnerability instead of avoiding it. Why? Because they recognize that what makes them vulnerable is what makes them beautiful. When they fully embraced that which made them vulnerable, recognizing it as part of the human condition, they became free from the torture of being found out – because they outed themselves. This is not a celebration of sin, or elevating brokenness – this is simply living humbly in light of reality.
I think every human being navigate these waters in one way or another as we are faced with the decision about who we are. How we identify ourselves is what we take pride in. Taken loosely, we can even take “pride” in our painful past, turning our struggle into a badge of honor that can get in the way just as much as an honorary doctorate, mouse click ordination or wearing a uniform you never served in. Maturing in our identity is not easy work, either, as we need to constantly be aware of the value we give out titles – even the good ones. I have been proud of many good things in my life: my family name, my academic achievement, my musical talent, my world-famous dancing skills (at least in my mind). I have even taken “pride” in some of the uglier parts of my story: personal choices that led to me brokenness, leadership decisions that got me in trouble, etc. The trouble comes when I forget that these things are not really my true foundation. These titles are an important part of my story, but they are not the genesis of my very existence. At the center of everything, I am simply a child of God. At my core, I look like my Father in Heaven more than my dad here on earth. That is a foundation worth building on, and necessarily keeps me on the humble side when I realize that every other person on the planet has that same core. This way of seeing leads to serving more than being served because I am reminded that we are all on the same journey together and need each other’s help to make it glorious.
In the face of leaders who loved their titles and the power they endued, Jesus told his followers to do exactly the opposite of the Pharisees. Instead of propping themselves up, choose to power down. Choose to serve others fully, not as a new form of gaining title, but because it is in serving where we find connection with others. When we are connected with others, we are more whole, more well, more human in the best sense of the word.
Bottom line: embrace vulnerability. It will help align your steps with Jesus’. It will open you up to the anointing of God which is Christ present. It will naturally lead you to serve others out of love. And ironically, it will make you stronger than when you were trying so hard to be strong. Do it for a lifetime and you might even be given an honorary doctorate, find yourself a reverend, but all with legitimate valor.