In his book, The Lord is My Shepherd, Harold Kushner tells about Martin Buber, a German philosophy professor of the early 20th century. One day a young student came to see him, deeply concerned about a draft notice he had received to serve in the German army during World War I.
A pacifist by nature, the young man was afraid of being killed in battle. At the same time, he had a deep love for his country. He didn’t like the thought of someone else dying in his place, either. He didn’t know what to do so he went to Buber for help.
The young man caught Buber at a bad time. He was working through a difficult theological/philosophical problem and was annoyed by the young man’s claim on his time. He said something along the lines of “That’s a serious dilemma; do what you think is right.” The conversation was brief and the young man left.
It wasn’t long afterwards that Buber received word that the young man had committed suicide. Buber was drenched in guilt. He wondered if the young man’s fate would have been different if he had responded differently to him. He realized that he had treated the young man as an object, not as a subject–not as a person of worth; not as someone who deserved his time and attention.
The experience led Buber to think about how people typically relate to one another. He concluded that we either relate to other people in an “I-Thou” or in an “I-It” relationship. In an “I–It” relationship, we treat people as objects. We are primarily concerned how we can use the other person to meet our needs. Others’ needs or issues are of no concern to us.
For example, imagine you are in a restaurant and the waitress comes over to take your order. The waitress gets your order confused. She seems distracted during your meal. She forgets to bring the ketchup you asked for. She brings unsweetened tea instead of the sweet tea you asked for. Her service is lousy and you are thinking that your dissatisfaction will be reflected in the size of your tip. You might even complain to the management. You relate to the waitress in an “I-It” relationship. The only concern you have of her is whether she met your needs during the meal.
Buber says that the other way we interact with people is in an “I–Thou” relationship. In this relationship we see the other person as a subject, someone who has needs and feelings of his or her own which are of concern to us.
Consider the encounter with the waitress. You could relate to her differently. Instead of seeing her as an object, Buber says you could see her as a subject. You could call her by name; after all, she wears her name on her uniform. Her name tag says, “I am a person. See me as more than just a waitress.”
You could say something like this: “Brenda, I’ve noticed you are struggling to keep up with all our requests this evening. Have you had a long day?” You never know when a simple question like that will give others the opportunity to lay a burden down, if only for a moment. You might be the first person of the day who cared enough to look past the uniform and see a real person and ask a caring question.
Taking Buber’s concept and applying it to Jesus, I can’t think of a single story where Jesus treated people as objects. Jesus treated people as subjects.
One of these many stories is about Zacchaeus. As Jesus passed through Jericho, Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, ran ahead of him and climbed up a fig tree so he could see Jesus coming.
“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed Jesus gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'” (Lk 19:5-7).
The Romans saw Zacchaeus, and the other Jewish people, as objects. The Romans didn’t care anything about them as people, and they cared nothing about Zacchaeus as a person. All they cared was that he collected the taxes from the people.
Zacchaeus saw the people as objects. He didn’t care anything about them. He cared only about becoming rich by levying heavy taxes upon them.
The people saw Zacchaeus as an object, too. They cared nothing about his feelings. Why should they? After all, he got rich at their expense.
But Jesus saw Zacchaeus as a subject, someone of worth, someone who needed a friend. This brought on jeers from the people, but it didn’t faze Jesus. Because Jesus cared about Zacchaeus as an individual, his life was changed.
“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.'” (Lk 19:8-10).
Today, someone will likely enter your life that you normally see as an object. Try relating to this person as a subject, a person of worth, a person that God loves. Put Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship to the test and discover what new doors God may open up today.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.