Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely…
I can’t remember why I was in her office, but there I was, talking to a young woman named Julie who had recently graduated from the university in the town where I was a pastor, and now here she was working for that same university. She had been one of the students who regularly came to my church, and I don’t think I ever saw her when she wasn’t smiling. So I noticed she wasn’t smiling that day and at some point I asked her about it. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, sighing. “I guess I’m just having a bad hair day.” I looked at her hair (which was perfect) and then I said, “You know, Julie, self-esteem is the way we esteem ourselves.” But that seemed a little too obvious, so I said, “The only person who can tell you how to feel about yourself is you.” And she sighed again and said, “Yeah, I know.”
But she didn’t seem convinced.
We all know that feeling, don’t we? When I was in first grade my mother once asked me to go with her to take something to one of our neighbors before school. I hadn’t even gotten dressed yet. I was sitting there at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating a bowl of oatmeal. But she seemed to be in a hurry so I pulled on a pair of my brother’s pants that were in the laundry pile and out the door we went. I didn’t even have shoes on. We were supposed to be back in five minutes but Mom and the neighbor got to talking and it got later and later and as we were hurrying home the school bus came to a stop right beside us and the driver opened the door. My mom looked me up and down quickly and then said, “I guess you could go like you are.” “No!” I thought. “I couldn’t!” But she nudged me up the steps of the bus and I spent that whole day trying to pretend that it was perfectly normal to come to school in a pajama top with no shoes on and your pants falling down.
And then there was the time when my dad was cutting my hair when I was in ninth grade and had bangs that came straight down to my eyebrows. When it came time to even them up Dad took the plastic guard off the electric clippers, asked me to sit perfectly still, and then lined himself up for the approach. He was doing a pretty good job until one of my brothers slammed the back door and my dad jumped and then said, “Oh, no! I’ve gapped you!” And there’s just no way to fix that, not without shaving your head. I went to school the next day with a big gap in my bangs and everybody in home room felt the need to tell me: “You got gapped!” Like my friend Julie I was having a bad hair day, and it’s hard to feel good about yourself on a day like that.
I’m sure something like that has happened to you, and even as I’m telling my stories you may be remembering a bad haircut or an unfortunate wardrobe choice or any one of a hundred other things that made you feel embarrassed or self-conscious. If you are, then you also remember the difference between those moments and the moments when you felt really confident, like when you went to school wearing a pair of brand new white tennis shoes right out of the box (pause to appreciate). There are those moments when you feel really good about yourself, and there are those moments when you don’t, and you have probably had enough of each to know the difference. But I want you to think about how much everyone else’s opinion made that difference.
If I had been barefoot on a deserted island, with my pants falling down, there wouldn’t have been a problem; I could have let them fall. If I had a gap in my bangs there I could have lived with it; I could have lived with pigtails and a hair bow. But I was at school! Everybody was looking at me, everybody was laughing at me, and it affected my self-esteem. Growing up was hard in those days, but these days it may be even harder.
Not long ago I saw a middle school girl taking a selfie. I can’t remember where I was, but I saw her standing to one side of the crowd looking up into her phone. She was smiling and trying to look adorable (which she did), but I had this feeling that when she was finished filtering and Facetuning® that photo she was going to post it on Instagram and then wait for the world to tell her what they thought. And that’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it? That’s letting the world decide whether or not you’re cute. If they do, if you get a million “likes” on that picture you might feel pretty good about yourself, but if you only get six, and those six are your parents and grandparents, you might not.
This is why I work out at the Jewish Community Center. I was taking a tour when I first moved to Richmond, and I saw an old guy in the fitness center pulling down on an overhead bar, raising about twenty pounds with a cable and a pulley. I watched for a while and he said, “How old do you think I am?” I guessed low. I said, “Seventy?” He said, “I’m 92!” He was proud of himself. I was proud, too. That guy was my new hero, but I also decided in that moment to join the JCC because when you’re competing against 92-year-olds it makes you feel young and strong. It’s the same reason I tell teenagers they should be on Facebook instead of Instagram, because the average age on Facebook is like, what, 72? When they post their selfies there they will look young and beautiful. The point I’m trying to make is the same: that when we start comparing ourselves to others it’s no longer self-esteem, it’s other esteem. We are letting others determine how we should feel about ourselves.
And that can be dangerous.
In an article published earlier this year journalist Derek Thompson reported that the United States is experiencing “an extreme teenage mental health crisis.i From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel ‘persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness’ rose from 26 percent to 44 percent. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.” One reason for that sadness is social media, but Thompson is quick to point out that “social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.” He writes:
“In 2020 the internal research division of Instagram found that while most users had a positive relationship with the app, one-third of teen girls said Instagram made them feel worse. And if you don’t believe a company owned by Facebook, a big new study from Cambridge University in which researchers looked at 84,000 people of all ages found that social media was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13.”ii Why am I telling you all this? Mostly because I’m your pastor, and I don’t want anyone walking around sad if they don’t have to, especially not middle school girls who didn’t get as many likes as they hoped for on Instagram. But also because one of the things that struck me right away about today’s Gospel lesson is that the people Jesus is talking to seem to be overly concerned with what others think about them.
At the beginning of chapter 14 Luke tells us that Jesus was at some fancy dinner party in the home of a leader of the Pharisees, and in verse 7, “he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” Close your eyes and you can almost see them, jockeying for positions at the head table, pushing and shoving to get the seat closest to the host. They care what other people think about them, in fact, they care too much. First-century Israel was a culture in which the categories of honor and shame meant everything. The worst thing that could happen to you was to be shamed, publicly. The best thing that could happen to you was to be honored, publicly. Get yourself into the right seat at a fancy dinner party and you would be the talk of the town, so that’s what everybody was trying to do. But Jesus told them a parable to let them know how everything could go horribly wrong.
“Let’s say you get yourself into a seat right next to the host,” he said, “and everything’s going fine, everyone’s looking at you and wondering who you are when the mayor walks in, late as usual, and the host turns to you and says, ‘Listen, whoever-you-are, I hate to ask, but would you please give up your seat for the mayor?’ And then there you are, standing up, brushing the crumbs off your lap, and looking around for the only place left which happens to be at the very foot of the table. Imagine the shame! But there’s another way to do this,” Jesus say, “a better way. When you get invited to a fancy dinner party take one of the empty seats at the foot of the table, and then when the host shows up he will see you sitting down there and say, ‘Friend! What are you doing down there? Move up to a better seat!’ And then you will be honored in front of everyone.” The moral of the story is in verse 11: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
But this isn’t really a plea for humility, is it? It’s more like a strategy for exaltation. Jesus isn’t asking his hearers to become humble; he is only asking them to act humble, to take the lowest seat at the banquet so that the host will invite them to come up higher, and then everyone will think they are important. It would probably work, but it doesn’t sound like Jesus. I can’t imagine him giving people advice on how to appear important unless he’s being ironic. Maybe the next thing he will say is, “And if that doesn’t work you can always wear a sash across your chest that says, ‘I’m kind of a big deal!’ That will get you a seat at the head table.” But maybe it’s just that Jesus doesn’t know anything about acting important because he’s never had to act. From the very beginning he simply was.
An angel told his mother that he “would be great, and would be called the Son of the Most High, and that the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David; that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and that of his kingdom there would be no end.”iii Do you think Mary was able to keep all that to herself? Don’t you think that she looked on his face when he was a baby and marveled at all that he would become? Can’t you imagine that as he was growing up she might have occasionally let it slip that he was the Son of God? So, maybe he wasn’t all that surprised at his baptism, when the sky opened up and a dove fluttered down and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased!”iv
I think this is what made Jesus so selfless: he didn’t have to think about himself; he didn’t have to worry about what other people thought. He knew who he was, and who he was was the beloved child of God. But so are you. The very first book in the Bible tells us that human beings were made in God’s image. I believe we still are: that while we are being formed in our mothers’ wombs God presses his seal into the soft wax of our souls so that when he looks at us that’s all he sees. He doesn’t see gender or color, age or ethnicity—he sees us! And he sees us as beloved. He doesn’t care how smart we are, or how much money we make, or how many followers we have on Twitter. He cares about us, and because he does we can breathe a sigh of relief, because really, does it matter what anyone else thinks of you when you are God’s beloved? This sounds better to me than self-esteem, which is what you think of yourself, or other-esteem, which is what others think of you. This sounds like God-esteem: when you derive your sense of self-worth from what God thinks about you, and when you do you become a different person altogether.
Just ask Jesus.
I sometimes imagine that everyone in the world is holding a cup, you know, like a coffee cup with a handle on it. Most people act as if their cup is empty. They are always asking others to put something into it—money, or love, or a million “likes” on Instagram. But you and I have a cup that is already full. We’ve been holding it under the waterfall of God’s goodness and grace so that now we have more than enough, we have plenty to give away. We can host a banquet as Jesus suggests and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, the people who would really appreciate it rather than the ones who can return the favor. We don’t have to care anymore what others think about us—God loves us! We don’t have to worry anymore about not having enough—God loves us! We don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else, anymore—God loves us! Maybe, like Jesus, we can become the most selfless people in the world, giving ourselves away for the sake of others because we don’t have to worry about that anymore; we know who we are; and who we are is God’s beloved children. So, friend, come up higher. Take your seat at the Lord’s Table.
There is no better place.
—Jim Somerville © 2022