Anyone over a certain age – or under that age if they know their history – will recognize the phrase, “Follow the money.” It became famous back in the 1970s during the Watergate scandal. Two young reporters for The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were investigating the Nixon White House. They were having trouble proving a direct connection between the Watergate burglars and the White House staff.
It was their confidential informant – codenamed “Deep Throat” – who told them just how to make the connection. “Follow the money,” he suggested. Find out who was paying them.
They did. Then Woodward and Bernstein raised a ruckus that brought down a president.
“Follow the money” is a useful principle for all sorts of things. Money is what our society supremely values. So, how people accumulate – and spend their wealth – and especially how much they give away – tells you a lot about what’s really important in their lives.
That is, unless you’re Jesus – or someone who takes seriously his invitation to follow Him. Following the money won’t get you closer to Jesus at all, because Jesus proceeds in an entirely different direction. While everyone else is focused on upward mobility, Jesus is modeling downward mobility.
His disciples began to glimpse how that could be true on the very day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey. That chanting, cheering, palm-waving crowd was looking for a leader on his way up, not down! He’d started out in Nowheresville, a forgettable little village called Nazareth. For three years He’d been building His brand, playing venues large and small. No one doubted Jesus was the hardest-working man in the religion business.
They were so very wrong about Him. They thought He was a rising star, following the money, and – not so incidentally – the fame and power as well. But Jesus of Nazareth was quite the opposite as He rode into the great city. He wasn’t following the money. He was following the mercy.
Philippians, chapter 2, explains it all. In this famous passage that was probably an ancient hymn, Paul talks about who Jesus truly is, and why He came to earth the way He did.
To picture what happens to Jesus over the course of these several verses, it helps to hold a visual in your mind, a diagram of the journey He makes. The diagram is shaped like a letter “U.” But maybe it makes more sense for those who are statistically inclined to think of it as an inverted bell curve.
What’s a bell curve? It’s like a certain line graph we all got very used to seeing during the Covid-19 pandemic: the one shaped roughly like a mountain.
“Flatten the curve!” they kept telling us. Flatten the curve of Covid by staying home, by washing your hands, by not touching your face. Thankfully, there are now some effective treatments for this virus that claimed so many lives in those early days, but it’s still true that the most effective treatment is prevention.
There was great concern about that bell-curve graph at the height of the pandemic. Find some way to delay its march through the population, so the health-care system wouldn’t be overrun by the burgeoning numbers of sick people at the top of the curve.
The bell curve of Jesus’ mission on earth, though, was different than that. His was an inverted bell curve. Rather than starting in the valley and going up to the mountaintop before going down again, Jesus begins with the downward journey. He starts at the top, and goes sliding downwards into the deepest, darkest of ravines.
Here’s how Paul describes the starting point: “[He] was in the form of God.” As the only begotten Son of God, Jesus’ perspective was heavenly, and the earth below seemed very small and far away.
But He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” The Greek word translated “exploited” is hard to render into English. It means something close to “grab” or “snatch” – the way one 3-year-old snatches a toy from another.
Jesus began by being equal with God. Yes, He was born a human being, but before that He’d lived through all eternity. Jesus already had it all: the highest status in the universe. But still, he climbed into that roller-coaster car at the top of the hill, and made that dizzying, terrifying descent.
Paul traces it out for us in the words of that ancient hymn. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Can you sense the roller coaster picking up speed?
The Savior doesn’t just start that downward journey toward becoming a human being. He becomes the lowliest form of humanity you could imagine. He takes on the role of a slave. He sets aside his divine prerogatives, devoting himself to the service of others.
But wait … He hasn’t bottomed out yet! The ride gets even more scary: “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
The death Jesus dies is the worst death imaginable. A shameful death. A painful death. A criminal’s death.
The cross has become, for many of us, a proud and beloved symbol of our faith. It’s easy to forget that it began as an instrument of torture. Imagine you have a daughter graduating from eighth grade. You want to buy her a little gift, a piece of jewelry, something to hang on a gold chain around her neck. Here’s the perfect thing: a little gold electric chair. Is that too horrible to contemplate? Well, how about a little IV bottle with the words, “lethal injection,” engraved on it?
The point is, we shouldn’t try too hard to make the cross a thing of beauty. It was – and remains – a horror.
Jesus’ roller-coaster car has been picking up speed by the second. The ground’s coming up to meet Him even faster. This cannot end well!
But you know what happens on a roller coaster. With a spectacular whoosh, the front of the car turns upwards and starts defying gravity. Up it climbs, in the space of a few seconds, to the top of another hill. All that momentum that was building on the downward slope has instantly been translated into upward momentum, into salvation!
That momentum carries us from the first stanza of this ancient hymn to the second: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”
There was nothing fun about Jesus’ downward ride. It was all terror. And at the lowest point, he really did crash, in a horrible, agonizing, humiliating way.
But God raised him up, all the same. As we all know, three days after the deadly crash, an angel rolled the stone away, and the resurrected Jesus emerged – at the very top of his game.
But that was only the beginning. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that he is Lord!”
Has that happened yet? Not exactly. The prophecy is still open-ended. Every knee? Nope. Every tongue? Not a chance. But it’s coming. That’s the promise of our faith: that one day our Lord will return and all of humanity will know it!
Now let’s talk about what following the mercy really means. It isn’t exclusively Jesus’ mercy. It’s also God’s mercy.
As we read this passage in English, we face certain challenges in understanding it in all its fullness because of the way the Greek is usually translated, right at the beginning. Most English translations begin, “Though he was in the form of God …” But if you translate it that way, you get the sense that, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a split, a clean break, between Himself and God – and probably between Him and the Holy Spirit as well. God stayed in heaven, enjoying the amenities, while Jesus abandoned His monogrammed towels and solid gold bathtub to go live in a dreadful slum with an open sewer running down the middle of the street.
That’s what you end up with if you translate it, “Though he was in the form of God …”
But the Greek can also say something else. There’s not actually a Greek word there at all that corresponds with the English word “though.” There’s nothing there. The way the Greek language works, you must infer that sort of thing from the context.
It’s just as likely the text really says, “Because he was in the form of God …” More and more modern translators are preferring that alternative. And that changes everything.
It doesn’t drive a wedge between Jesus and God the way “though” does. Jesus does what He does, coming to earth to die a criminal’s death, because – and this is the key point – that’s exactly what God would do. Because God is merciful. God so loved the world as to send God’s only Son. If you want to find where Jesus is working in the world, you have to follow the mercy!
Why mercy? It’s simple. Because we humans have already made quite a mess of this earth on our own. We love sin just a little too much, and virtue not enough. We hurt other people and corrupt ourselves. We’re so busy following the money, and the sex, and the power – and whatever other self-destructive passion you could imagine – that we’ve made an utter hash of things.
There’s no denying it. We need a savior, someone to pull us out of the wreck. We need someone who started from so high up, on the first hill of the biggest roller coaster in all the universe, that the terrifying, careening, downward motion of his amusement park ride-of-death would end in a bone-pulverizing crash. Which, in Jesus’ case, it did.
But then, defying the laws of physics and biology – and every other law of nature you could imagine – the roller-coaster car was whole again, and He was whole again, and it was shooting up to the top of that second hill, quick as you please. And we all bowed down and worshiped because what else could we do? What else could we do?
The path of Jesus’ journey shows us that the one whom we worship is no stranger to fear and anxiety. No doubt He felt those emotions as He stood there before Pilate, beaten and bleeding.
But we also know that not even the cross was the end of His story. “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that he is Lord!”
As Christians, we do not follow the money. We follow the mercy. And that divine mercy in Jesus Christ – focused on us and on the entire human race – will never fail us. Not today, nor tomorrow, nor even on that dreaded day when we face the specter of our own death.
Many of our neighbors, of course, don’t see it that way. To a great many people in our world, mercy sounds puny and weak. Righteous indignation seems stronger and more compelling. But in truth, like the power of ice to split rock, mercy is a great force for good in our world, well worth joining up with.
Our story doesn’t end in a tomb. It ends in the love and acceptance of a merciful God. Let us, like Him, follow the mercy. And let us also, like Him, welcome the glory that will one day break upon us, sure as the sun rising in the East!