A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
“The three Christs met for the first time in a small room off the large ward where they lived.”
That was the first sentence of a book that leaped from the page and grabbed me as it’s reader back in the sixties. The book was Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti and was quite popular among the college crowd. First published in 1964, the book was a psychological study of three men who shared the same delusion of being the Christ, the Son of God. Reissued in 2011, the book has been made into a stage play, screen play, and two operas.
The book is a record of how on July 1, 1959, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together three paranoid schizophrenics who had one thing in common: each man thought himself to be Jesus Christ. Each patient suffered the same delusions of grandeur thinking himself to be the Savior of the world. Each manifested serious full blown symptoms of grandiosity.
As Rokeach found it impossible through conventional therapy to break through the men’s messianic delusions and see the truth about themselves, he stumbled on the idea of group therapy for messiahs. He decided to take three delusional would-be messiahs and see if they couldn’t be helped through a form of group therapy. Hopefully they would become messiahs in recovery.
So for the next 25 months, in Ward D-23 of the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, the delusional messiahs slept in adjacent beds, shared the same dining table, worked together in the laundry, and met for group therapy. The plan was to confront each patient with the “ultimate contradiction” of each one thinking he was the Christ.
One can only imagine the sort of interesting chatter that might arise between three men thinking themselves the Son of God. Rokeach describes how the early sessions became quite charged and heated. “You oughta worship me,” one Christ demanded of the others. “I will not worship you! You’re just a man and ought to wake up to the facts,” another roars. Yet another Christ snaps back at the others, “No two men can be the Christ…I am the Lord.”
Once when Rokeach asked the group, “How do you know you are the Messiah?” one patiently confidently answered, “God told me.” Another patient exploded, “I told you no such thing!”
Rokeach’s hope for each patient was that in seeing the other two men were not the Son of God, each might make the connection for himself. But the men made no such connection. All the therapist’s efforts to cure their delusions proved futile. In a 1984 edition of his book Rokeach conceded that little science could be taken from his study. Yet Three Christs of Ypsilanti remains a rare story of madness.
Today’s Scripture text also tells a story of sheer madness, of grandiosity, of crazed delusions of greatness. Here we learn of would-be followers of Christ who are in heated argument over who of them is “the greatest”. The tragic scene might be comedy were it not being played out in the Upper Room that was the focus of our Lenten devotional, Close to the Father’s Heart. Jesus’ crucifixion is but hours away and Peter, James, John, and the others are arguing over who is the greatest!
It is here that Christ lays aside His outer garment, takes a basin of water and sets about washing the disciples’ dirty feet (John 13:5). As Jesus does this He sets forth the rule of His Kingdom: the greatest is the one who serves. Jesus Christ announces His presence among us “as one who serves”.
I ponder today’s text and it stings my heart at my madness, the sheer lunacy of thinking I deserve an easier way than Christ’s way of the cross. It shreds delusional dreams that I ought to be spoken well of and appreciated by others. It shatters the grandiosity of imagining that I should be treated as better.
Yet at the same time the text sets me free, it liberates me from my madness. It releases me from the heavy burden of thinking that my opinion must be right. It releases me from expectations of being honored and treated right by others. It sets me from grandiose illusions of greatness and invites me simply to follow after the one and only Christ “as one who serves”.
Grace and peace through Christ,
photo by Megan Ann