The Chief Seats
When Jesus visited the home of a prominent Pharisee he was closely watched by members of that party who formed the strongest opposition to his ministry. The invitation may have been bona fide and the host somewhat sympathetic and curious about Jesus and the motive and meaning of his message, but other guests were definitely there to entrap the Saviour and he knew their scheme. So he pre-empted their plan by posing a question they dare not answer for fear of revealing their legalistic lack of compassion in their literalistic application of Sabbath law (vv5, 6). Their silence made it obvious that they were dissembling by nature and ill disposed toward him. Already there was an air of arrogance in the room as Jesus alluded to the preciousness of all life, human and animal, and the need to alleviate suffering.
Pride and punctiliousness is indifferent to the misfortune of others and "stand offish". The absence of identification with the unfortunate is the root of non-involvement. The principal concern is the welfare of number one in situations where "me and not thee" is the dominant consideration – the source of most disputes.
Whilst Jesus was being carefully watched by his enemies he was keeping a discerning eye upon them and couldn't help but see the human preoccupation with social climbing in action before him. It was obviously a feather in the cap to attend a function at the prominent man's house and to be seen among such society as he had invited. The atmosphere bred self-display. Jesus noticed how the guests "picked the places of honour at the table" (v7).
The natural ego rates itself above others. This self-estimate has to be demonstrated in every way possible according to the standards by which human worth is measured by the world – pedigree, position, performance, and possessions. It all adds up to a sense of personal prestige, which we want to be evident in everything we are associated with from background, to school, to college, to career, to church, to residential location. It is true that many people of prominence can be characterized by a sense of their poverty of spirit before God and their genuine humility possesses a true beauty and exerts its charm, but social climbing has its allurements for everyone, and it can exercise a subtle influence even in the life of the church where distinctions between social groupings are drawn (demographics), and the patronization of certain folk can come into play. The quest for kudos is foreign to the family of Christ and our elder brother forbids it in his parable. "Take the lowest place" (v10) – an instruction that has little appeal and irks us.
False humility is obnoxious as Charles Dickens shows us in his delineation of the character of Uriah Heep (I am very 'umble) in the novel David Copperfield, and often this sinful tendency is detected within us when we silently register an offence to our pride and sense of place in the scheme of things. Prominence and power are often our prevailing pursuits in almost any activity, but the urge is so instinctive we are scarcely conscious of it. Jesus must have been shocked to see so many seemingly decent and respectable folk vying for pre-eminent position; grasping at honour from dishonourable motives.
Often it is not affection or admiration that causes people to associate with the well placed in the social order but the desire to snuggle up to power and advantage for one's own ends. Flattery can turn into fierce antipathy when it doesn't seem to be paying dividends. It is the speech of the deceitful tongue. It is the fishing for favour with the hook of false praise.
The most notorious example, perhaps, of climbing the ladder to prominence is exhibited in a certain mother's request on behalf of her two sons (Matthew 20:20-28). Zebedee's wife made a bid for advancement in the coming kingdom for James and John. "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left."
Amazingly, Jesus' response was not scathing but sensitive, pointing out that such presumption emerged from ignorance. Mark tells us that the sons themselves were complicit in what amounted to family ambition (Mark 10:35-37), a not unknown phenomenon, and this sense of entitlement rankled with other disciples who disputed the claim and desired such rank for themselves (Matthew 10:24-28, Mark 9:33-37).
Climbing and competitiveness not only emerges from our hearts, but also infiltrates even our best service. We, as believers, possess two natures in conflict and the conflict spreads if it is not promptly contained and cleansed within.
The One who "made himself nothing" (Philippians 2:7) is not impressed by attempts at self elevation, but distressed at false classification and proud discrimination within the people of God.
There is certainly respect to be accorded to genuine worth, expertise, and responsible authority, but there is also to be mutual respect and high regard all round for those who, by grace, will be royalty in heaven whatever their rank on earth, royalty not as a desert but a donation from he who won participation in his glory for us though his voluntary humiliation as the suffering servant.
It is salutary and lovely to ponder Paul's words to the believers at Corinth: "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Paul does not exclude the aristocratic, affluent, and able, nor does he favour the lowly and the poor. He simply says that no one may crow before God, nor can any qualify in themselves, or above another, for God's acceptance. All without exception gain the divine approval in the same way: "It is because of him (God's grace and calling) that you are in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:30). Whatever the circumstances or station in life of any believer there is the instinctive avoidance of the place of honour, the chief seat, on the basis of merit or attainment. We are honoured to have a place at Christ's table (Matthew 8:11) and we honour those at table with us. If they are Christ's friends and family then they are ours also, receiving our affection, fellowship, and courteous acceptance.
Brokenness, humility, and contrition are the marks of the believer and these qualities serve to put the brakes on assertiveness, rivalry, and self-interest in the family of God. "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.(Philippians 2:3).