The counterfeit calling of celebrity

Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.” (John 12:42-43)

You’ve probably heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” similar to the playwright Oscar Wilde’s quip that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. You might debate the wisdom of those statements, but there’s no denying the power of celebrity.

Shorn of its perks, celebrity is simply the quality of being well-known. There’s no value judgment attached to it; popularity is simply repackaged as notoriety if its root is bad rather than good.

But not in biblical terms. Praise from men and praise from God are in antithetical tension. To “love” the former in the biblical sense is to hold the latter in contempt.

But to cherish praise from God is not to denigrate man’s approval, just subordinate it. We are commanded to submit to governing authorities and are commended (i.e., praised) by them for doing so, but when conflict arises, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). These two types of praise may be in tension, but they do not cancel each other out.

There is nothing wrong with the praise a good student receives, or a diligent and productive employee or a courageous, principled statesman. Disdaining it is just being self-righteous or churlish. We all appreciate it when it’s expressed sincerely. And there’s no reason not to.

But one of the striking things about Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders of his day was the general absence of the type of sordid ministry scandals we’re used to: financial extravagance and corruption; sexual improprieties; bizarre “new revelations” and unusual practices.

Yes, Jesus talked about their specific failures (e.g., straining at gnats and swallowing camels; setting aside the word of God to observe their traditions), but just as prominent was doing apparently good things for the wrong reason. And the wrong reason was to obtain man’s praise.

What does this have to do with us? Just about everything. Jesus’ audience was light years away from the ubiquitous social media-driven form of celebrity we know today, but celebrity is fueled by praise from men just as your lungs need oxygen and your car runs on gasoline. As was the religious world Jesus was born into and confronted.

Jesus said categorically, “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Mt 23:5). They made a show of their religious finery (“make their phylacteries wide and . . . tassels long”), loved their public prominence (v. 6), basked in the titles and deference (“loved to have men call them Rabbi,” v.7).

In contrast, Jesus taught that his followers were to check their motivations. Otherwise good religious practices, whether good works, giving alms, fasting or praying should not be done “to be seen by men” or “to be honored” by them (Mt 6:1-18).

The right way was to do them “in secret,” a form of hyperbole that contrasted with a grandstanding “announce it with trumpets.” At risk was forfeiting their Father’s reward in exchange for “their reward in full”–man’s praise–obviously both fleeting and inferior (Mt 6: 2, 5, 16).

For all its apparent simplicity, Jesus’ analysis and teaching pointed to a watershed distinction. When he began his ministry, he announced, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near” (Mk 1:15).

Near, but not already here, manifest in the nation’s religious system of chief priests, Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes. Like bookends, the kingdom announcement at the beginning of his ministry was complemented by this judgment at its end in Jerusalem: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [i.e., chief priests and elders] and given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Mt 21 43).

And, as if to underline this, in the early days of the church, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) were struck down when they tried to give a gift to the apostles “to be seen of men.” The “great fear [that] seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v.  11) was a sobering reminder that this was a new kingdom in every aspect. The kingdom where everything is done for men to see was history.

Photo illustration by the author

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