From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
May 17, 2023
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” These words are attributed to Oscar Wilde (born in 1854), a writer, poet and playwright, but he was not the first one to say something like this. As early as 1820 a pastor from Britain is quoted as saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” It is quite likely that Oscar Wilde added the second half. What this saying means is this: if we see someone we admire, we are likely to copy them, and, instead of being offended, the model we imitate should be flattered that he/she is so much appreciated. Wilde would say that most of us are little better than mediocre (about average), but people who possess genius can guide those who are mediocre to become better.
All of us are imitators to one degree or another. Sometimes our imitations are subconscious, for example, when we begin to mimic the phrases or expressions of another person. I know one woman whose expressions and mannerisms have become so nearly identical to those of her friend that it is sometimes easy to mistake one for the other. Other times we are more deliberate in our imitation, perhaps well illustrated when an amateur athlete imitates the moves of his or her hero. A hockey goalie, for example, may adopt the posture and stance of one of the NHL greats. When we imitate others, we are giving our nod of approval to them, either consciously or unconsciously. While not everyone wants to be imitated, to be imitated is to be admired.
Who we imitate says a lot about our values. Again, we all imitate others, either consciously or subconsciously, and when we do, we are revealing what is important to us. A young person on the city streets may adopt the mannerisms of his neighbourhood gang leader, and we know he admires him. If, on the other hand, the young man on the city streets wants more to his life than a gang can offer, he will dress and act differently from those around him.
In several of his letters, Paul urges his readers to imitate him. An initial reading might make us think that Paul is a little arrogant in his exhortation, but when we read deeper, we come to understand that Paul is passionate about following Jesus Christ, and he wants others to do the same. As he states in 1 Corinthians 11:1, he has made it is his goal to imitate Jesus Christ and where he has been successful, he urges others to imitate him as well. It seems that Paul seeks to create an environment where Christians deliberately seek to imitate fellow believers. In urging his readers to imitate him, he seeks to have us all evaluate what we believe is important and assure ourselves that following Jesus Christ is the first and overarching value of every Christian. Paul’s call for us to imitate him is more than just to urge us to mimic him, but, rather, that we become more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
As we are well aware there are many models for us to imitate, and many of them are not so good. Many people today value success as it is seen in financial success, popularity, and the ability to decide our own fate. We might label these as prosperity, popularity, and power. Because so many of our neighbour place a high value on these things, we may be tempted to value them as well, and we will imitate those who have achieved them to the neglect of imitating Jesus Christ. It does seem that even Christians are often times more driven by these values, and we often look a lot like the world around us more than we look like Christ.
We know, of course, that Scripture calls us to hold different values. Instead of prosperity, popularity, and power, we are called to serve others, often at great cost to ourselves, and our commitment to Jesus Christ can result in our ostracization by others. There are good models of the kind of Christians that value these attributes, but we tend not to hold them up as people we should imitate. In fact, even in the church, we have a tendency to label them as being odd or radical.
Yet, those are the very kinds of people we should consider imitating. In fact, it would appear from the way that Paul talks, we should always be developing an environment where imitation of exemplary Christians is inherent in our culture. That would mean identifying and recognizing mature believers among us so that others can learn from them and so learn to become better followers of Jesus Christ.
I suspect it would be difficult for those who are identified as being exemplary Christians to want to be singled out. Usually, one of the attributes of a faithful follower of Christ is humility, and humble people don’t want to be noticed. Yet, Paul realized the importance of modelling what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and as he did just that, he invited others to imitate him, not so that he could be elevated above the rest but so that we all could be better at being God’s beloved children.
It would seem, if Oscar Wilde is right, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness. The church can become better as it identifies and emulates those who are successful Christians, not defining success as the world does but defining it as someone who humbly follows Jesus by serving others. Most of us are just average Christians. Some of us are more “genius” in our faithfulness to Jesus. Let’s imitate them so that we together we can be the kind of church that Jesus calls us to be, a church which loves God and exemplifies that love in our care for our neighbour.