Pursuing Prominence

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Randy Schwantz’s 2005 book, How to Get Your Competition Fired, proposes a six-step plan to drive a wedge between your competition and your customer, which will lead to you receiving the opportunities on which your competition loses out. It’s a deliberate ploy to get ahead.

We sometimes experience the same temptation in our Christian walk. We want to get ahead. We may not verbalise it, but we feel a sense of pride when we get what we know others want. We secretly rejoice when our rival falls.  We exaggerate our own reputation or accomplishments to get ahead. We encourage others to speak our praise. And when we fail to get the recognition we secretly think we deserve, we resent it.

When Jesus was invited to a banquet of a leading Pharisee (see Friday’s devotion), he witnessed this quest for prominence on open display. Luke tells us that “he noticed how [the guests] chose the places of honour” (Luke 14:7). At ancient Middle Eastern banquets, it was widely recognised that the places of greatest honour were immediately on either side of the host. The closer a guest could get to the host, the greater the place of honour. As he watched the guests arrive, he noticed how they nonchalantly inched closer to places of honour. He confronted the situation with a parable (vv. 8–11).

In his parable, he warned that those immediately making their way to the places of greatest honour might well be embarrassed if the host asked them to make way for a more distinguished guest. He therefore exhorted his hearers to deliberately choose the places of lowest honour, which might result in the host inviting them to a place of greater honour. He concluded the parable with this exhortation: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We live in a world that encourages self-exaltation. We are urged to assert ourselves and to let everyone see our dominance. Jesus warns that God humbles those who approach life with that attitude. He tears down pride and destroys vanity.

Given its context, the parable perhaps most immediately applies to our approach to God. The religious leaders staged humility. They publicly showed themselves to be humble servants of God by their public displays of devotion but, in reality, were pursuing what Kent Hughes calls “salvation by recognition.” At the final judgement, they would not get what they thought they deserved. People who believe that they will stand before God on their own merit never get what they think they deserve. Our place at God’s eternal banquet table is secured by grace, not by our perceived merit.

But the parable also speaks powerfully to those who have been saved by grace. As Paul exhorts in Philippians 2:5–11, Christians should be characterised by the humility of Christ. We follow his example. Though he deserved the place of utter prominence in God’s kingdom, he willingly stripped himself of every claim to prominence and humbled himself by assuming the form of a servant. Paul exhorts us to embrace the mind of Christ in this regard.

Humility means that we think of others more than of ourselves, even as Christ served others at the expense of his own comfort. Humility means relating to others as fellow image-bearers of God, even as Christ reached out to the most marginalised in society. Humility means holding our own sense of self-worth lightly, even as Christ did not think primarily of himself and his own rights. Humility means not taking our own successes too seriously, even as Christ sought to direct glory to his Father and not himself.

Ultimately, the key to humility is an authentic relationship with God. C. S. Lewis said it well: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” The key to humility focus on God above rather than on ourselves and others below.

As you reflect on this parable, examine your heart to see where you are pursuing prominence and instead choose a lower seat, leaving it to God to invite you to greater prominence as he sees fit.