The American preacher, Donald Strobe, tells this story. There was once a census taker who was making his rounds in the lower East side of New York. He went into a tenement and interviewed a mother of a large family bending over her washtub. “Lady, I am taking the census. What’s your name? How many children have you?” She replied, “Well, let me see. My name is Jean. And then there’s Marcia, and Duggie, and Amy, and Willie, and…” “Never mind the names,” broke in the harassed bureaucrat, “just give me the numbers.” She straightened up, hands on hips, and with a twinkle in her eye, said, “I’ll have ye know, sir, we ain’t got into numberin’ them. We ain’t run out of names yet!”
Well, that story reminders us that sometimes we can feel like numbers. Numbers on a bank statement or credit card at a call centre. Numbers on a computer screen at an enquiry desk. Numbers in a file or on a letter. In fact, this modern world of ours seems to run on people being numbers rather than personalities. I suppose it comes from the need for everyone to be more productive at work or ensuring the data protection act is not breached or, more likely, just the desire to get back to something more important than little you. For we have all had the experience that the glowing screen is more alluring to a clerk or clerkess rather than your need no matter how pressing. As I say, it is a moment like that we feel we are no more than a number.
Paul must have felt that to some extent in Thessalonica. He went there to give them the great news of Jesus Christ. But, they saw only a trouble maker, a fermenter of change and a disturber of the dying past. And so the natives of that town did what we often do with troublesome parties. They reduced him to a stereotype, to a problem to be solved even to a non-person to be brushed away. And, as a result, they had no qualms about raising a mob against him, complaining to the authorities about him and generally treat him as an irritating statistic rather than person.
Berea on the other had treated Paul and his friends differently. They must have seen beyond the apostle’s vagabond appearance, his wild preacher’s passion and hear what he was saying. They grasped the essential truth that Christ does not care for humanity as some statistical database but for each as an individual. Moreover, they found in that message their own concern for someone maybe not in the best position with the law and helped. Put simply, they say a 3D flesh and blood human being and not a cardboard figurine.
Today we could say Thessalonica and Berea are faraway places whose happenings we know little of and care less. Yet that really isn’t true. For these very places are on our TV screens nightly. Since, you see, Thessalonica and Berea are in the Macedonia Greek border region; an area full of migrants many who are refugees from the most appalling atrocities this new century has seen.
Now some are there for economic reasons and a very few have malevolent intent. Yet the vast majority are just ordinary humans like ourselves in desperate need of valuing, respecting and sheltering.
Nevertheless, the news reports go on to show these real individuals with real feelings being treated as a number, a statistic and as a problem. And so the sad outcome is that many are ailing as numbers and dying as numbers. And that is true, even if amongst them, are modern day Pauls and modern day Peters and modern day Jesus Christs.
In my youth, a favourite TV drama was the Prisoner with Patrick MacGoohan. The story was that our hero resigns from the secret service and is then kidnapped to the sinister village. Set in Port Merion, Wales, the village is a place where nothing is what it seems or explained. The only certainty is that there is no escape. As the actor explains – the Village is there to stamp out any sign of individuality. So much so, every resident is known by a number. Indeed, every episode started with McGoohan shouting – I am not a number – I am a free man!
Today we have the opportunity not to be a number Since we are free to choose. Free to choose not to be a Thessalonian rabble-rouser but a Berean Christian. Free to choose to see others not as statistics but fellow beings with emotions, needs and aspirations. Free to choose to value, respect and care for individuals in need not as data points or information bytes but as names- human names – beloved names known unto God.