Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting in the garden of friends, counting the butterflies on their Buddleia. On a warm and sunny day many different species were being attracted to the sweet scent of the flowers. It’s called the “butterfly bush”, and that day it was doing just what it says on the tin. And one thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a definite pecking order - even among butterflies, it seems, some guys get the best seats at the table, while others have to wait their turn.
So there before me in insect form was the theme of our Gospel reading today. In all human situations, there’s a pecking order too. And isn’t it annoying and frustrating when people get noticed not for having the best ideas, not for their commitment, not for their hard work, but just because they’re good at being noticed! “Make sure you’re in the right place at the right time,” they tell you. “Make sure you grease the right palms,” even.
But here’s an important warning we’ll come back to: “A person may spend his whole life climbing the ladder of success only to find, once he gets to the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall,” said by the monk and Christian writer Thomas Merton.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus engaging with a pattern of behaviour that’s all too familiar. In every walk of life, there’s a pecking order. It’s how we are, and vicars aren’t all that much better. The way we live and relate together is judged by a whole range of status signals, some subtle, some quite brazen and blatant. These signals communicate where we are in the hierarchy, or where we think we are; they say how we want others to see us. Where you’re placed at a formal dinner can be part of that. Are you on the high table? Or are you somewhere down below. And, if I’m honest, even if I really don’t want to be at the top table, and wouldn’t be comfortable there, I can still get cross when I see someone else placed in a better seat than mine when so far as I can see I’m every bit as good and capable as they are, and maybe a whole lot more so.
And it’s not just who sits where at formal dinners: think about all the many ways in which a message of status and standing is communicated. Whether you qualify for a marked parking space, or your own private office. How many birthday parties your child is invited to from school - or indeed how many children come to hers. What the number plate is on your car: is it a 19 plate, a 69? Or your own personal plate, perhaps? Where do you buy your clothes? Everything about us says something, and much of it can be interpreted in terms of rungs on the ladder.
Well, at the time of Jesus the seating at a meal was quite a big thing. Where you sat signalled your wealth or prestige or status, and of course the host might also manipulate the seating pattern. Say you were giving a dinner: you might wish to arrange an advantageous marriage between your daughter and some particular young man, in which case it could be good to place his father higher at the table than perhaps he might have expected. Or you might want to move someone down to a lower place if you’d been offended by him in some way, or if, say, he’d treated you badly or unfairly in some business transaction. In this way a meal became the stage on which social niceties were observed and arranged, and social politics played out. And it might well all be open to the street: anyone passing could assess your standing, and see the honour in which you were, or were not, held.
At first reading, Jesus doesn’t seem to be challenging this. I might have expected him to condemn this ridiculous system of status measured by where a person sits, but instead he seems to be talking about how best to use the system. “Don’t go to the highest place, for you might be sent somewhere lower,” he says. “Take the lowest place, and maybe that your host will say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher’, and everyone will see the honour you receive.” But of course the reason he says any of this is to make this vital point: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus may not have openly challenged the status systems of his day, but he was in fact doing more than just giving advice on how best to play the game. It’s nice to think that if I took a lowly place my host might call me up to sit higher. But he probably wouldn’t; and if my whole reason for taking that holy place was that I’d be publicly honoured, it’s going to be really annoying when that doesn’t happen. The big risk of taking the lowest place is that you might well end up staying there.
Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” Thomas Merton said that those who’re so keen to climb the ladder may find it’s leaning against the wrong wall. What Jesus is really saying is I think that if our greatest aim is to put ourselves above others, we might well find ourselves with lots of shiny things, and we might have the grudging respect of those who’re looking up at us - but we might also end up with cold and empty hearts. All along the ladder was leant against the wrong wall. We exalt ourselves at the cost of our integrity and our soul.
Think about what jockeying for position can do to a person. We’re seeing enough of it I think just now in our own nation’s political life. But it happens everywhere. We’re annoyed by the unfairness of it all: one person is rewarded without really deserving it, while another gets shoved down a rung despite all their best efforts. We’re exhausted by the endless competition. The working environment can become toxic when ambitious personalities clash. Things get twisted round so that it’s all about them. We walk on eggshells; and the truth is the first victim, when people are in it for themselves.
Jesus says, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” But not necessarily within this system. If I humble myself in order to be noticed, and sit low down in order to be invited higher up, I strongly suspect I’m going to be deeply disappointed. Jesus is really talking about not playing the status game any more, he’s telling me to get off that ladder.
And if I’m no longer playing the game, maybe I’ll find I’m making some creatively different choices. Maybe I can stop looking for a way to get to that next rung on the ladder, and instead look for ways I can lend a hand. Maybe I can move from being a toxic element in the organisation to being a healing one. Maybe I can get away from a “what’s in it for me” view of the world, and start thinking about what the world might need from me, rather than what it ought to be doing for me. Then maybe I’ll find I’m beginning to get things the right way round. I may be climbing a few rungs even, but this time on the right ladder.
That’s a matter of spiritual discipline, to start with, anyway. I need to make the decision to go against my natural desire to aim for my own comfort and status and power. But maybe as I make that effort I’ll find that craving to be the best and to have the most begin to ebb away. As I work at it, taking small steps, maybe there’ll be something Christ-like within me that begins to grow.
We can’t free ourselves from the status system, because that’s how human communities, and animal communities work, even butterflies on Buddleia bushes. There’ll always be a table and there’ll always be people jostling for the top positions on it. But we do have a choice about whether we go along with all of that. I can choose where I want to sit. I can choose to be where I’ll be useful, rather than where I might be noticed, or have the best shot at success and money and power. And if I’m making the right choices, for the sake of Jesus and seeking his help, it’ll be his ladder I’m climbing, the one that frees me from being tied to status and worldly styles of success.
I don’t need to make a big show of things, or pretend to be something I’m not. Jesus knows my true worth, and I know that that worth isn’t a matter of where I sit, but how I love, and by whom I am loved. And I am free to live a life thankful for what I’ve been given, rather than anxious about what I can get. Amen.