The Lord is a homely Lord who draws near to his creatures, who dwells in and with them. He is a lowly Lord, who suffers our sorrows and our sin, who joins us in the far country. And he is also a courteous Lord.
The courteousness of the Lord is evident in the very act of creation, in which he makes room for a reality that is not himself, a reality that exists not in competition with him, but alongside him. It is also evident in the way he patiently and lovingly upholds this reality, preserving it from falling back into the nothingness, enabling it at every moment to be what it is. The Lord is courteous too in the life-giving commands he gives to the people he frees from slavery. These commands, or better, “words,” are given to a free people so that they may remain free from the false gods that would enslave them—the tyranny of endless work, the killing and cheating and lying we think we need to do in order to protect our own interests, the endless acquisitiveness that turns everything and everyone into tools to be used. The Lord’s courteous words are an invitation to live lives of courtesy and dignity and freedom in a world in which human beings are enslaved to the cruel lords and gods that dehumanise them.
It is just this gracious invitation that in his work and his life Jesus extends to human beings, calling each by name to come into his kingdom, to dwell in his life. The fact that this is an invitation itself reflects the Lord’s courtesy. He does not force himself upon human beings, but graciously invites them to entrust themselves into his care, to hand over to him the all-too-heavy burdens they have taken on, or which have been imposed upon them, and to receive in exchange his very life. This courteousness of the Lord is nowhere more apparent than in the post-resurrection appearances recorded in John’s Gospel, in which he comes to Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter. Thomas does not believe the reports of Jesus’s resurrection. When the Lord comes to him, he does not overcome Thomas’s doubts with a declaration but with an invitation to reach out and touch the marks on his hands, and his pierced side. And so he enables Thomas to relinquish his disbelief by the gentlest of acts. Peter encounters the Lord early one morning on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, and over breakfast the one whom Peter had denied three times patiently and lovingly leads him through a process that undoes that denial. Peter’s three-fold denial is transformed into a three-fold confession of love, and in turn he receives, three times, a commission to feed the followers of Jesus.
The Lord here acts with profound courtesy and gentleness. But perhaps the most moving example of his courteousness is his encounter with Mary, who, beside herself with grief and confusion at the empty tomb, does not recognise him at first, mistaking him for the lowly gardener. Instead of announcing himself to her, as we might expect him to do, Jesus gently inquiries into the cause of her anguish. When she tells him, thinking he has taken her Lord’s body, he says one word to her. Or rather, he does not simply say a word to her, but calls her by name: “Mary!”, to which she immediately answers “Rabbouni!” or “Teacher” (Jn. 20.16). This encounter is one of the most beautiful recorded in all of Scripture. In it we hear the words of the Lord to Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43.1, NRSV). These words are not said in the possessive way in which the false gods and lords speak to those whom they consider worthless slaves. The Lord does not speak to human beings as a master would speak to a slave, but as a friend would speak to a friend or a lover to a lover. He calls them by their names. “Adam!” “Abraham!” “Moses!” “Mary!” He calls them—lovingly, gently, courteously, for he is the courteous Lord.