The Status Game
Nobel Laureate economist, John Harsanyi, said that “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.”
It’s a motivation we learn early and practice often.
We learn it in the school cafeteria – the table you sit at and your position at the table determine your status.
We learn it with the shoes we wear, the accessories we carry, the cars we drive. We learn it with our social media posts. Those who put themselves forward, who maneuver to the front gain honor and status. It’s a universal human drive and a universal game we play.
For those at the top, status is a treasure. For those at the lowest places, it can be a real curse.
Author Andy Crouch wrote-
“status — at root, “where you stand” –is about your place in line. It is about the human drive to be ranked above another, to be counted more worthy than another … Status is about counting, numbering, ranking and ultimately excluding … We rarely have any control over where we land in these rankings; they are assigned based on realities that long preceded us. Status is by definition a scarce resource … Status is rarely anything but dangerous”
How should we navigate the allure and dangers of a status seeking world? What should we do with the desire for status in our hearts?
Read Luke 14:1-24.
You never know when Jesus will show up with a lesson.
This conversation at the dinner table is a normative picture of what it might look like should you try to follow Jesus. It’s not simply a Sunday morning experience. If you really want to follow Him and learn from Him, you never know when he will show up in your life. He might show up at the gym, while someone is standing in front of the mirror taking selfies. He may have some observation for you while you are at home with the children at the end of a long day. He might sit with you and have a lesson for you while you are at the brew pub on a Saturday night. You might learn something from him at a dinner party. That’s where we find ourselves in Luke 14.
What did the scene look like at this dinner? Here’s a brief description from Scot McKnight of a dining arrangement of the home of a prominent person like this chief Pharisee.
“The Dining area was like a courtyard with a large table in the center loaded with food and three couches surrounded the table. A large couch was located at the head of the table farthest from the door and a couch on each side of the table. Important people would be placed at the couches and others at places on the floor.”
Alastair Roberts, describes the invisible scene in the chapter:
“The meal table was—and is—a reflection of the relations between people and of their place within a broader social and material world; each meal was—and is—an opportunity to secure or advance one’s place within this social order.
The meal table and the throwing of banquets were arenas within which people negotiated and competed for social status. It was also a site of intense social scrutiny and Jesus was being closely examined by the Pharisees (verse 1), who wanted to see what his table manners would reveal about him.”
Jesus was also observing the Pharisees and had something to say about their status seeking. The lesson He is going to give them is that
The best way to win the status game is to forfeit.
Yesterday my son Ben had a football game. We arrived an hour early for warm-ups. Throughout that hour, the coaches built up an atmosphere of effort and hype. The team, all decked out in their helmets and pads and shiny uniforms, marched out onto the football field chanting their war chants and ready for battle. When they arrived, the opposing coach walked over and casually announced that the team didn’t have their paperwork and would have to forfeit. Just like that, all of the hype was totally deflated. That was a bummer. But some effort and hype needs to be deflated. In Luke 14, Jesus pokes at the bubble of the status game hype.
Jesus sees the game, he sees everyone maneuvering to the seats closest to the head, seeking greater honor and influence.
Breaking all social convention He publicly addresses what everyone is thinking about but obviously not speaking about. “when you are invited by someone to a feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,” and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.” He gives the guests two parables, which include them as the main characters.
Imagine finding yourself in the seat of honor at an important event, ready to hobnob with the wealthiest and the most powerful. You can feel all of the eyes on you. You can feel your status rising. Then a new guest walks in the door and you hear the voice of the host – “I’m sorry, I’m going to need this seat. You’ll have to move.” With horror, you realize that the only open seat is now the one at the very back of the room. The one which is hit by the door every time a server comes in or out. With all eyes on you, you move to the lowest place – status declining with each step. Sounds fun doesn’t it?
Then Jesus says, there is an alternative to this tragic journey through temporary honor into lasting shame.
What if you gave up the whole game. What if you turned everything upside down and just sat in the lowest seat from the start. What happens? Verse 10. Your host will see you in the lowest seat, he will be surprised to see someone willingly sitting there, he will be moved and he will personally come and escort you to a position of greater honor.
Wouldn’t that be better? Wouldn’t that be more enjoyable?
There is an inherent nobility in yielding honor to others, isn’t there? The person who does not have their elbows in the mix pushing for greater honor and influence, but who calmly moves into the back. There is a nobility about that.
Some years ago, I heard a story about the enormously influential leader of Campus Crusade for Christ, Bill Bright. Bright was headlining a big conference. The speakers stayed together in a hotel and the first night each of them set their shoes out in the hallway for a hotel worker to gather and shine. One of the speakers told the story of waking up early in the morning to find Bill Bright on his knees, shining shoes. He was shocked. But that’s the way of Jesus, isn’t it?
Take the lowest place.
What does that mean for you? It’s different for all of us isn’t it? It might be at home for you. It might be at the office or your community group where you will find an opportunity to forfeit the status game and take the lowest place.
After speaking to the guests, Jesus turns to direct his observations towards the host.
There is a status seeking in finding the best seat as a guest. There is also honor to be found in the hosting. In Jesus’ day, hosting well connected people was a great opportunity to secure future honors. A person hosting a generous dinner would look forward to enjoying many returned favors.
What does Jesus have to say to the host about this?
The best way to get real rewards is hang out with people who don’t have any to offer.
Do you want real rewards? Do you want true blessings? Don’t invite those who can pay you back, but fill up your home with those who have nothing to offer. Bring in the poor and the outcast, bring in those at the lowest places.
The first parable is not entirely unreasonable. Some would see Jesus instruction as a brilliant technique in the status game. The second parable is different. It is totally unreasonable. To shun those who have favors to give and in exchange invite those who have nothing is social suicide. Why would anyone do that?
It doesn’t make any sense.
Unless we are not alone. Unless we are not the only ones observing our status games. Unless there is a God who loves those who take the lowest places and loves to reward those who bless them. Unless this short life is not the end but only a beginning, an introduction to later chapters in which we will be judged by our actions in this first one.
If that’s the case, everything changes. The most reasonable thing is to seek honor in the eyes of the only important one in the room.
There’s an important question that some of you might be asking. You might be thinking, sure that’s great for you. You’re a pastor. You’re a white male. It’s easy for you to talk about taking the lowest place when you have always had the place of honor. It’s a fair point.
Not all hosts are good are they? Some in this room know that too well. Women and those living in minority cultures can point to history to show that some hosts would love to see them submissively taking the lowest places. They would love to keep them there.
But Jesus is not like us. In fact, these parables that we have been listening to? They are much more than that. They are autobiography. After telling these stories, Jesus would go on to live them out in real time.
Jesus himself took the lowest place. He left the place of ultimate honor to become the lowest servant. How was He treated by the host he visited? He was shamed in the most violent and humiliating ways. In the end God highly exalted Him and now Jesus is preparing a banquet for all of those who follow him into the low places.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown