Each year, when we come into the thick of the political season, I am reminded of Annas, whose son-in-law Caiaphas was the high priest of the Temple in Jerusalem when Christ was crucified.

Annas, a former high priest himself, was the patriarch of a powerful priestly family. His influence extended beyond the Temple precincts into the palaces of Pilate and Herod. In the passion according to John, the soldiers who arrest Jesus bring him first before Annas, who sends him on to Caiaphas. If true, this would confirm the scope of Annas' influence, for he held no office at the time. Well educated, well connected, and politically deft, he was as well placed as a Jew in the Roman Empire could be.

And that, according to one school of thought, was his problem. Some Scripture scholars believe it was Annas' privileged position that made him hostile to Jesus. They argue that the Temple priesthood wanted to neutralize Jesus because his ministry threatened the always fragile peace that existed between the Jewish people and their Roman rulers--a peace on which Annas' influence and prosperity depended.

There is no way, of course, of limning the motives of a man who has been dead for two millennia, but this image of Annas as an insider, a power broker, has particular resonance with me.

I live among movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. My friends, neighbors, and acquaintances include policy makers, image shapers, television pundits, and celebrities of the op-ed page. The homestretch of a presidential campaign is when their expertise matters most. And although I neither move nor shake much of anything myself, I have committed political journalism in my time, and I fancy that I am a member of this society, although at several removes.

We are, in many respects, the Annases of our time, the ones who have learned to play the system and who have reaped the rewards, the ones who either set the world's agenda or dine with those who do. As Annas grasped the rules of success in his time, we have grasped them in ours. And though we were not born aristocrats, we have through talent, education, and luck compiled what passes for the proper pedigree.

The elite of any age must justify its position, and its privileges. In our age, we have hung our hat on the concept of merit. The essence of our argument is that excellence must be elevated and rewarded because a society that is led by its best and brightest will prosper, and one that is not will fall. Cultivating excellence, then, is the highest moral calling. Put differently, excellence is holy and pleasing to God.

As a Christian, I assume I will find evidence of this conclusion in the life of Christ. But I don't. Nothing in Christian Scripture indicates that mastery of one skill or another entitles us to a greater share of wealth, prestige, or power. In fact, the evidence would seem to point in the opposite direction.

God did not send his son into the smart society of his time. Nazareth was a backwater within the backwater of Roman-occupied Palestine. And Jesus did not begin his public ministry by gathering the best minds of his time. The apostles were such a motley crew that even the sympathetic evangelists could not disguise their flaws. (Imagine the chewing out that a media strategist or management guru would have given them.)

Now imagine what Annas would have made of this peasant preacher from Galilee and the ragged band of misfits who followed him. How could he comprehend that God had entrusted the salvation of his people to a nonentity like this carpenter's son? Surely, if the Almighty had a message, he would have entrusted it to a more impressive figure. Someone wise and well respected-- someone like him.

But God confounded Annas' expectations, and I believe that God confounds ours too. We are not all intelligent, attractive, or athletic. We are not all capable of rising through the meritocratic ranks. Yet Christ calls those who aren't as least as frequently as he calls those who are. Each of us, regardless of resume, reflects the image of God. And this reflection burns no brighter when we make a good investment and no dimmer when we lose our job.

The excellence to which so many of us devote ourselves is not a measure of our worth. It is superfluous at best and a hindrance at worst. But the more accomplished one becomes, the harder it is to remember that. Which is why the Annases of our day--and I count myself among them--may be as unlikely to recognize holiness as the Annas of Christ's.

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