|David LaChapelle (1963-)|
“…you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:14)
Boy howdy do we ever love status. I guess that’s why facebook is so appealing. We can really show ourselves off like we’re all still trying to be the cool kids in high school. With the ability to publish our every thought and activity to hundreds of “friends” at once, Mr. Zukerberg has successfully managed to keep America in a perpetual state of adolescence. I’m just glad the acne doesn’t come with it.
But status, prestige, the adulation of the masses, and big rewards are the things Jesus warns us about in the Gospel reading assigned for Pentecost 12 in the Revised Common Lectionary this year (Luke 14: 1, 7-14). Jesus has been invited to a dinner party at some big-shot Pharisee’s house. It’s pretty clear the host didn’t invite Jesus in the hope of a reciprocal invitation to an equally swanky soiree. Nope. Jesus doesn’t have those kinds of bucks. But I suspect the itinerant rabbi’s fame is what put him on the A-list. All the other guests are looking at this peasant preacher, the current flavor of the month around Israel, and wondering what he’s going to do and say. Maybe some of them only showed up because they heard the famous Jesus of Nazareth would be attending. If we can’t be a celebrity, you know, we at least like to say we’ve met one.
Jesus is watching them, too. He sees how they jockey for position, everybody trying to get the VIP seats at the table to show off their stature within the community. So Jesus busts out with the parable in verses 7-11. The moral is pretty obvious: Don’t go around puffing yourself up, because somebody will—inevitably—come along and let the air out of you. Then you’ll be disgraced. Which is bad. There are some folks who would prefer cancer to humiliation.
I’d like to point out, however, that I don’t think there’s any real sin in being successful or well-regarded. In a brilliant speech he gave at King’s College, London in 1944[i], C.S. Lewis likened having status to inheriting a fortune from your maiden aunt. If she dies and leaves you a ton of money, there’s nothing wrong with that. The sin is in coveting it. That is, if you want the old broad to kick off so she can leave you her loot, you better get yourself right with God. The hunger for status, fame, adulations, or what have you is the real problem. It’s like a drunk’s thirst for booze. A little bit is too much, and a lifetime of praise is never enough. It will be cool for a while, but will eventually leave you unsatisfied. You’ll discover your fellow high-status people are just as messed up and insecure as you are.
When I re-read Jesus’ suggestion for a better dinner party in verses 12-14, I thought of that great old MGM melodrama Dinner at Eight.[ii] A society lady wants to show off to her friends by inviting a British peer and his wife to dinner. She’s so obsessed with the impression she’ll be making that she never notices the illness of her husband and the turmoil of her daughter. We, the audience, see how all of the dinner guests, in spite of their tuxedos and evening gowns and glittering jewels, are just a bunch of broken and miserable human beings full of sin and unhappiness.
What would the world look like, I wonder, were we to put all the effort and resources we put into making ourselves look successful and important into providing mercy and aid for the “unimportant” people of the earth? Those “little people,” you see, are pretty big and important in God’s eyes. And so are you.
Just remind yourself. Once a man loved you so much that he went to death on a cross for you. You were that important. You mattered that much to him. Is there any job or honor you’re going to get, any swanky friend you’re going to make, any award you’ll win or applause you’ll receive that will matter more to you than the knowledge of how much God already loves you? I mean, come on. Do you really give a crap about where you sit at the table? Because at the head of the table or at the foot, the end of the meal will be the same.
[ii] It was released in 1933. It’s brilliantly over-acted by an all-star cast and based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. If you ever see it, you’ll know why folks in the Depression found it great escapism.