Many people in the public space, public figures who have higher profile through their position/power, wealth, celebrity, education status… have a higher regard for who they are and what they can do than perhaps is reality. Donald Trump, for example, cannot separate the authority, power and responsibility of his position as US President from his own persona. It is as if he has the power, authority and everything that is held within a particular role – even to the point of wanting to ‘buy’ Greenland! A journalist, covering his candidacy had an interview with him and he suggested she would like a photo with him! It was an expectation. Trump also believes that he has the right to abuse and put down anyone who would ask a difficult question, disagree with his perspective or call him to account. He also seems to believe that he has the right be sexist, racist and to discriminate in any way he chooses. He is not alone in thinking this. Vladimir Putin, as I’ve commented before, is far more cunning and vindictive, violent and capable of gross evil, and holds this dominating power over and against all who would challenge him. Many Australian (and certainly current British!) leaders have also exhibited this arrogant sense of them being all-mighty and all-wise, simply because they hold a particular position which really has greater responsibility than anything else.
High profile celebrities strive for recognition at the ‘A-list’ events – especially awards night after-parties. The Oscar after-parties are legendary as the ‘would-be-if-we-could-be’ seek to be invited to the higher order parties, those with greater prestige. There have been stories of people turning up to these higher order, A-list parties expecting to be let in, only to be turned away and having to resort to one of the ‘lesser’ parties. They grieve not being seen with the elite of the social world.
It is fascinating to observe how ego and arrogance push people to strive further for greater recognition and honour. Humility seems to be a ‘dirty word’ in our society. People’s worth seems to rise with the recognition they receive through the accumulation of wealth, success in business, the arts or sport, education status, positional status and authority. Many people feel they have greater authority, or their voice is worth more simply because they own more or control more. There is often an unstated correlation in the public’s mind between a person’s profile and worth and the obvious wisdom they must have. Alan Jones has celebrity and is listened to by many people and wisdom, truth, and insight are attributed to him. Likewise, Rupert Murdoch. Both have power but neither demonstrates any sense of humility and they expect to be heard and taken more seriously than other voices. Their wisdom is very often lacking.
So, I come to a story that seems quite dangerous and disturbing, at least for the balance of societies like ours. It certainly was for the time in which it was written and played out. It comes from the ancient story of Jesus, attributed to ‘Luke’ in his account of Jesus (Luke 14:1, 7-14). In it he tells of Jesus, as a pious, holy rabbi, being invited to a high order party held by the political/religious leaders of the Pharisee Party. It is an invite-only dinner party where on-lookers presumably were able to listen in and observe the interactions. The tradition, as I understand it, was that people invited those on an equal level or above them to these dinners. The invite came with an anticipated reciprocal invitation to another dinner hosted by the invitee. You only invited those who you wanted to impress or honour and those who would/could invite you in return to an equal event.
Somehow, Jesus was invited to this affair and he offered his candid advice through the course of the evening. He suggested that when you are invited to a communal dinner, a wedding gathering… don’t take the higher level seats in case someone more important than you showed up and you were asked to vacate the seat and move farther down the list. Such a situation would be shameful, humiliating and cause a profound loss of face publicly. Instead, suggests Jesus, sit in the lower places and the host may then invite you to move further up in the more privileged, respected seats, thus honouring you publicly.
He went on to further suggest that when hosting parties, don’t just invite those who are more honourable and who can invite you back. Invite the poor, outcasts, marginalised – those who cannot return your invite. This is the way to deeper compassion and life, love and grace – all things of God, who will see what you are doing, and it will be valued!
At first glance, these stories seem to be gentle advice on how to get ahead in life – display false humility and you may find yourself more highly and publicly honoured! Invite the poor and God will look upon you with approval and you will earn ‘heaven points’ from your gracious acts. However, these are not stories designed to help anyone ‘get ahead’. They actually upset the order of the social structure in which Jesus (and Luke) lived. Jesus turned expectations and status quo on their head and disturbed the privilege and assumptions that surrounded such privilege in the world.
Jesus’ words are about taking ourselves, other people and God seriously and to walk into the 3-fold way/path of love, which is the only truly life-giving path. To take myself seriously is to recognise that I am a unique individual with unique sets of gifts, skills and attributes – some are developed and contribute to the well-being of the world and others more hidden and undeveloped. I am not better, nor higher, greater, more significant… than any of the rest of God’s children. We are in every sense equal but not the same. That is the humility we need to embrace – I am ordinary in the sense of being equal to all others but also special in my own uniqueness, as is each person. We are all loved profoundly by God and in this we find our worth, our esteem, our value and our sense of being – in this alone! Everything else is fraught – it plays with our egos and makes us feel better or worse, lesser or greater with no real basis.
When we recognise that our true worth, which is very deep and precious, comes from finding ourselves, our lives, within God, we are then able to see each other person as one uniquely created in God’s image. We will also recognise the strengths and failures we experience in each other, but our response will not be dismissive or rejection but love and understanding. Jesus is inviting us to recognise that we are all people and a communal gathering or dinner is not a competition but a relational place where we engage with each other as fellow human beings, each with strengths and weaknesses, joy and pain. When we look to the vulnerable, marginalised and poor, we discover people who need a hand up, a place to belong and share life, a few shared resources that they deserve. We also discover something about them and us when we share a meal and welcome them into our space. We become more human and they do as well. Jesus’ way will challenge the spaces within our social order and invite us to allow love and grace to flow and life to be lived.