Because you are worth it: leisure and worship

We made a discovery during the early years of the Westminster Theological Centre curriculum development: quite a few Christians pour out their lives for others, but don’t look after themselves. This became apparent through the psychometric testing and personal development plans (PDPs) each student undertakes. It is a particularly significant problem with older (mature) Christians and there are dramatic stories of life transformation when people realise why they do need to spend time out on themselves.

I love this story about Rabbi Hillel the Elder (died c. 10 B.C.):

The merciful man does good to his own soul (Prov 11:17). This applies to Hillel the Elder who once, when he concluded his studies with his disciples, walked along with them. His disciples asked him: ‘Master, where are you going?’ He answered them: ‘To perform a religious duty.’ ‘What’ they asked, ‘is this religious duty?’ He said to them: ‘To wash in the bath-house.’ They said: ‘Is this a religious duty?!’ ‘Yes,’ he replied; ‘if statues of kings, which are erected in theatres and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, and who thereby obtains his maintenance through them – nay more, he is exalted in the company of the great of the kingdom – how much more I, who have been created in the image and likeness; as it is written, For in the image (tselem) of God made he man (Gen 9:6)?’ (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3)

To fully appreciate the power of this story, it helps to know:

  • the bath house was a Greco-Roman import into the Jewish world. Some pious Jews would have refused to go there on religious grounds.
  • the statues of the kings that Hillel refers to were a key component of the multi-faceted practice of worshipping the emperor in the Roman world. The emperor was treated as a divine being by the masses and, famously, Gaius Caligula (12-41 A.D.) tried to have a statue, an image, of himself installed in the Jerusalem temple. The Jews were horrified, mass protests ensued and, providentially, Caligula died before the order was carried out.

Statues of ‘divine’ emperors were banned for Jews because they knew that worship of an emperor through man-made images cut, tragically, at the heart of God’s purpose that all human beings should be God’s own statue (tselem). But at least, says Hillel, the idol-worshippers know how to look after their statues.

So look after yourself. It’s an expression of worship. The Roman bath house was affordable for the common man (or woman); so it doesn’t have to mean an expensive day in a luxury spa.

And it might be that you need to do more than sit around chatting waiting for your turn with the masseur or masseuse. The bath house was the local gym. Some of us need, as Hillel points out, to give this statue a good scouring.

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