The Inherent Value of Humans Regardless of Their High and Low Positions in Life
In the Nativity and Infancy Narratives of Luke’s Gospel, all humans possess inherent value, intrinsic or “built-in” worth, a worth in the very nature of being human persons. In other words, all human lives, whether righteous or unrighteous, are sacred. Not only that, but Luke also teaches that all kinds of people, by God’s plan, are involved in the birth of Jesus. Consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, all people accomplish his purposes.
There are, for example, persons in positions of authority, high positions, for whom Jesus Christ was born and, ultimately, died, namely, Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, and Quirinius, the Governor of Syria. (cf. Luke 2:1-2). There are also, by contrast, another class of people, namely, the lowly, simple, humble shepherds, tending their flocks by night (cf. 2:8-12, 15b-20). But God values those in low and high positions, because they are equally human, equal in being. In short, both are made in “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27).
The Inherent Value of Humans Regardless of Being Rich and Poor
The lives of the rich and poor human beings possess the inherent value of being persons. For example, Caesar Augustus lived in a palace, surrounded by wealth. Yet Jesus was born in poverty. For instance, his mother did not even have a cradle in which to place him. He was probably born in a cave, where animals were kept, and placed in a manger, which was a feeding trough for animals. Yet both the rich and poor have worth, being made in God’s image.
Similarly, the persons making up all families, including poor ones, have inherent value. For example, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was poor. When Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to present the baby Jesus to the Lord, Jesus’ parents were so poor that they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb, which was the normal or usual gift for the presentation. Instead, they offered a sacrifice of the poor, as the Torah or Law of Moses prescribed, namely, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24, ESV; cf. Leviticus 12:8). The human beings in poor families, then, just as much as humans in rich families, possess inherent value; not, however, because humans are poor; but rather they are persons, image-bearers of God.
The Inherent Value of Prenatal and Neonatal Humans
Prenatal (intrauterine) human life, life before birth, is sacred, possessing inherent dignity or value. For example, brephos is the Greek word translated “baby.” Shortly after Mary conceives Jesus, she greets Elizabeth and “the baby (Greek brephos) leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41, NIV; cf. 44, NIV). The baby in Elizabeth’s womb is a human being, namely, John the Baptist. Thus, Luke mentions the value of human life, the life of a human being, before birth.
Luke also mentions the value of postnatal (extrauterine) human life, the life of a human being, immediately after birth. “Baby” (brephos) is used twice of the new-born, infant Jesus. He is the “baby (brephos) wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12, NIV; v. 16). Therefore, whether inside or outside the womb, a baby is a human being, made in God’s image.
The Inherent Value Human Beings Regardless of Their Age
Young and old human lives possess inherent value. For instance, the Virgin Mary cooperates with God, conceiving and giving birth to Jesus. She is somewhere between 14 and 16 years of age, which, by today’s societal standards, is young. Yet she accepts her pregnancy with the words: “[B]e it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NASB).
Luke mentions, in contrast to youth, the aged or elderly. For example, in a revelation from God to Simeon, an old man, probably close to death, he was told that would not die until “he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26, NIV). Thus, at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Simeon held the baby and blessed God for seeing the Savior, Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 2:28-32). Every human being, then, whether young or old, has a role to play in God’s story, because every human is a person, an icon, a sacred image of God.
The Inherent Value of Humans Despite Being Powerful or Weak
In the Infancy Narratives, Luke contrasts strength with weakness. He refers to Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the ancient Roman world, with the little, innocent, vulnerable baby Jesus, “lying in a manger” (2:12, NIV). While Caesar was powerful, the baby Jesus was weak. Yet God values the weak as much as the strong. Both image-bearers of God, possessing a human nature and, therefore, both are equally human.
The Inherent Value of Unwanted Persons
No one in the town of Bethlehem would accommodate Joseph and Mary in their need for a place to stay, so that she could give birth to Jesus. Mary and Joseph went from one “inn” or place of lodging to the next, being repeatedly unwelcome (cf. 2:6-7). One of the worst kinds of social disgraces, according to Mother Teresa, is “being unwanted, unloved, uncared for.” In some sense, Joseph and Mary must have felt unwanted. That was why Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable or cave. Nevertheless, unwanted human beings have value in themselves, because they are still persons, made in the divine likeness, having a “stamp of divinity” in their very being.2
The Inherent Value of Exalted and Lowly Creatures: The Angels and Shepherds
Angels, created by God in heaven, are much lower in being than God. However, humans, created on earth by God, are a little lower than the angels (cf. Psalm 8:5). Now, in the night of Jesus’ birth, an angel appears to the shepherds, while tending their flocks in the fields (cf. 2:8). The light of God’s glory, reflected in the angel’s presence, momentarily dispels the darkness, as the angel announces to the shepherds the good news of Jesus’ birth (cf. 2:9-12). Then the heavenly host, the choir of angels, chant a hymn of praise to God for the birth of Jesus Christ (2:13-15a). Thus, heaven and earth, the celestial and the terrestrial, angels and men, humans and animals, play a significant role in Christ’s birth, with their respective place of value in God’s order of creation.
For Christians, Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus should definitively change the way they look at all human life. Each human being – whether good or evil, whether in high or low positions, whether important or good-for-nothing, whether rich or poor, whether born or unborn, whether young or old, whether strong or weak, whether radiant with health or ill, whether Jew or Gentile – is made in God’s image. That is the deepest reason for the inherent value or dignity of the human person.3 That is also the ultimate reason for the incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas says,
“[T]here is no greater proof of God’s love than that God the Creator became a creature, that our Lord became our brother, and that the Son of God became the Son of man: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son.’”4
Similarly, theologian Kallistos Ware writes,
“In his outgoing or ‘ecstatic love,’ God unites to his creation in the closest of all possible unions, by himself becoming that which he has created.”5
Thus, Jesus was born not only for all human beings but also for every individual, each human person. Similarly, Jesus died on the cross not only for humankind, humanity, but also for each person (cf. I John 2:1-2; Galatians 2:20). Every human life, then, is sacred, inherently valuable, from the womb to the tomb, from the time of conception to the moment of death. Therefore, the Christmas message is “pro-life,” but not only in the sense of stressing the value of human life before birth but also, and equally, in emphasizing the value of life after birth and during all the stages of human life. Let each person, then, find in the nativity of Jesus his or her dignity or value, thanking God for the birth of the Savior of the world, saying with the angelic hosts, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV).
- Mother Teresa, Heart of Joy (Ann Arbor, MI.: Servant Books, 1987), p. 54.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979, reprinted 1986), pp. 64-68.
- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey (Huntington, IN.: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1990), p. 60.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed,” 3, in The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Laurence Shapcote with updated English (Manchester, NH.: Sophia Institute Press, 1990), p. 34. Aquinas quotes John 3:16a.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 92.