Climbing the Ladder of Success
Lk 14: 1,7-14
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
An American monk once said something we may not really want to hear, but we can immediately connect with, the uncomfortable truth about Jesus’ teaching in our gospel today.
Thomas Merton said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
As I said in my sermon two weeks ago we find it easy to connect with Jesus as a healer, our saviour, a teacher and even as a prophet. But Jesus as an angry young man, a revolutionary, someone who speaks against the way our society works? That’s harder to accept, especially when we realise that he is preaching about behaviour that we engage in regularly.
The service was wonderful, you enjoyed the canapes and champagne, and after the welcoming line went straight to sit at the top table. Familiar to us all, the Table Plan, encountered at weddings, banquets and many other formal events. Let’s face it we don’t go and sit at the top table unless we’re a parent of the bride or groom. Table etiquette was very important in the time of Jesus too.
In ancient Israel’s society, who sat where at a dinner party conveyed status as clearly as who has the newest car, who gets the marked parking space at the golf club, whose child has private tuition or where we socialise. Our lives are full of subtle status signals and we use them to communicate who we are and how we want others to see us, it all sends a message about our worth and prestige, usually based on our economic power. We buy a rung on the ladder as often as we “earn” it.
These signals were conveyed in Jesus’ time by the seating at a meal. And the seating as arranged by the host was not just a signal but also a tool. If you hosted a dinner and wanted a good marriage match with a certain young man for your daughter, you could place her father at a higher place at the table than he usually would have. If a competitor in business short-changed you in a deal, you could seat him lower at the table to show your displeasure. Seating at the table was currency, and it was the stage on which political and social relationships were played out. It was the public display of an individual’s or family’s place in society.
One of the most interesting parts of this gospel is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “This entire status-by-seating system is bogus and I want you to chuck out the whole thing.” Jesus proceeds on the assumption that we will work and live within this system. He says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So Jesus leaves the status system in place. That seems like being let down. But think for a moment about what it feels like to jockey for position as we do so often at work and socially and at church. The endless competition, the unspoken cues and subtle put-downs, the unfairness of who is rewarded and who is shoved down to a lower rung is exhausting, isn’t it? When we get caught up in these games we are disconnected from God and our true selves. And that drains us of life and vitality.
Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Suppose he’s referring to the exhaustion of the rat race? Perhaps telling us that as long as we search for satisfaction in ways to stand on the shoulders of others, we will find ourselves with many shiny things but cold and empty hearts. Exalting ourselves drives us to new lows of integrity and new poverty of happiness.
Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” What if the exaltation Jesus promises is not the most Tweets we get? What if it’s not letters after our names or the senior warden’s role or a clergy collar around our neck? What if the exaltation Jesus promises is freedom from the whole status system?
If we decide we’re not going to play the game anymore, we can start to make different choices. We can stop searching for a leg up at work and look for a chance to lend a hand. We can stop thinking we’re too important to set out chairs or wash dishes at church and instead turn up early or stay late to do humble tasks. We could keep our cars, our clothes and our phones an extra year, remembering those around the world who make do with so much less than what we’re blessed with, no longer needing to display the latest and the flashiest.
Those choices go against our nature that drives us to seek comfort and status and power. But what begins as a discipline—choosing over and over to humble ourselves as Jesus asks us—starts to transform us. Suddenly, that craving to be the best, to have the most, to win at everything, starts to ebb and die away. This is the exaltation Jesus promises the humble. And if we keep working at it, small choice by small choice, the seed of peace that was planted by hard-earned discipline starts to blossom.
“Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When we are still trapped in the status system, we might imagine Jesus means that at the Great Dinner Table in the Sky, the humble will finally, finally get to have the best seats on the top table. They’ll have an eternal Bentley, a never out-dated smartphone, and an infinity sign where their Facebook ‘like’ number used to be. But that would not be heaven. It would be the same prison we lived in on earth.
The only way out of the chains of the status system is to follow Jesus in his example of downward mobility. We must of course avoid the trap of showing off taking on humble tasks and refusing honour loudly—that’s simply climbing a rung on the ladder of martyrdom and noble morality. It’s the same prison.
We can’t free ourselves from the status system. Jesus points that out by assuming there will always be a table and there will always be fighting for higher positions at the table. Where we do have a choice though is where we choose to sit. And if we ask Jesus to be with us and help us to take the lower seat, help us to stop playing the game, help us to abandon the fight for success and money and power, he will exalt us to freedom from the need for status at all.
We won’t need to make a big show of it. We will know our true worth. We will know deep in our bones that our worth is not determined by where we sit, but by whom we are loved, and we are loved by Jesus. Amen.
The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 01/09/19