Imitation

The great mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein, during the later years of his career, went on long speaking tours around North America. Usually on college and university campuses, but sometimes for civic groups, Einstein would talk about his theories of Relativity and other scientific advances of recent times, helping students and citizens gain an appreciation of what was being discovered in the academic community. It is said that he generally traveled by car from lecture site to lecture site, with a driver who would see to his needs on the road. The driver (or chauffer) would sit at the front row at each lecture for one reason: as soon as the question-and-answer session ended at the end of the lecture, the driver would whisk Einstein out the side door of the hall, take him to a motel where he could get a good night’s rest and a healthy breakfast, then set out on the road again for the next evening’s lecture.

One summer, after a few weeks of nightly talks, Einstein was exhausted. Getting into the car, he said to the driver, “Billy, I don’t think I can do this one more time. I need a night off; I’m sick of saying the same thing night after night.”

“Dr. Einstein,” the driver answered, “A lot of people say that I look just like you.” The resemblance was slight, but Billy did have longish unruly white hair and large blue eyes, and he was about as tall as Einstein. “I’ve heard your lecture enough times that I know it by heart. Tomorrow night why don’t you let me wear your suit and stand up and give the lecture. You can wear my uniform and sit in the front row and get some rest for a change.”

“I don’t know, Billy,” Einstein said. “You could probably give the lecture from memory, but what about the questions and answers afterward?”

“It’s been the same questions twenty times over,” Billy said, “and I’ve heard you give the same answers twenty times over. I’m sure I can pull it off.”

Einstein was tired of lecturing, so he agreed. Before they reached the next town, they stopped at a service station and exchanged clothes. When they arrived, the driver met the organizers of the lecture as Einstein, and the real Einstein sat in the front row as the driver. When the lecture began, the real Einstein was nervous, but as the talk proceeded he realized that Billy was speaking his lines perfectly. He relaxed and even napped a bit. When they got to the questions and answers, Einstein woke up and was fretful at first, but the first two questions were perfectly familiar, and the driver answered then exactly as Einstein would have answered.

The third question came from a young man who clearly had been thinking about the theories of Relativity for a while. His two-part question called for a response that had not been needed at any of the previous lectures. Billy’s heart was racing, but he kept his outward composure. Peering over the top of his glasses, he frowned at the questioner. “Young man,” he said, “you clearly think you have come up with something new in the field of physics. You are mistaken though. In fact, your question is so elementary that I believe even my chauffer could offer you a response. Billy, come up here and answer this man’s question.”

 

Discipleship is largely a matter of imitation. In the ancient world, disciples lived with their teacher, traveled with their teacher, and learned to imitate their teacher. Eventually they were sent out on teaching tours of their own, sharing with others the same things they had learned from their teacher. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was probably a talk that he gave dozens of times to various crowds in synagogues and outdoors and in people’s houses, until Matthew and Peter and the other disciples could repeat the teachings of Jesus word-for-word.

Now we are the disciples of Jesus, learning how to imitate him, to say the things Jesus would say and to do the things Jesus would do. When we least expect it, Jesus invites us to stand up and take his place, to represent him to a world that needs his message of hope and forgiveness and love. As disciples, it is not enough for us to remember what Jesus said. We are called to say it too. It is not enough to remember what Jesus did. We are called to do it too. We save no one by our obedience, not even ourselves; Jesus has already saved us, and he has already saved the sinners we encounter. But the Church of Christ is his body: his hands, his feet, his voice. Our imitation of Christ forms the basis for everything that many people know about Jesus.

At times, we will be confronted with something unexpected. Jesus will not leave us on our own at those moments. He is always with us, always ready and able to take our place, to fight our enemies, and to win our battles. He rejoices, though, to see us succeed in our imitations of him. He is the genius; we are just the drivers. Yet because we know him, we can speak for him even in this sinful world. J.

Advertisements