Everything we read, including everything we read in the Bible, is colored by culture, and in this week’s lectionary gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14) we certainly encounter cultural elements I’ll skip over. I want to focus on something else—specifically, an idea that appears repeatedly in the teachings of Jesus; the idea that ‘the first will be last and the last will be first,’ or as it’s stated in this passage: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In this passage, Jesus is using the metaphor of a banquet to tell us something essential about the ‘kingdom of God.’
Jesus teaches that unlike the values of the prevailing systems around us that reward status wealth power, the values of God’s reign are bottom-up. In the reign of God, the first will be last, and the last will be first. Those in high positions are considered less honorable than those pushed to the margins, and God is eternally on the side of those experiencing oppression. But I also hear another dimension. I hear this: Things change. Things will always change. When you find yourself at the top, watch out, because this too will change. When you find yourself at the bottom, count your blessings, because things will inevitably get better. We can only count on one thing, and that is change. Everything is impermanent. We should know this by now; yet it remains piercing news for those at the top. When we’re at the top, we tend to shield our eyes and cling and pretend the endless party is just getting started.
Because I am, for the most part, among a privileged group in my country, this is challenging news for me. As an educated white woman from a stable middle-class background, I benefit from a system where opportunity streams have been dammed to keep stuff flowing my way. Such domination was happening in Europe and various colonies long before white people set foot on the North-American continent. But in the United States, the inequity has been part of the system from the beginning—at every step along the way. According to demographic trends, though, America will not remain a realm of white dominance. Change is coming and has been for a long time. So, woe to those who cling to their white power! Blessed are those who are disempowered now!
Jesus is not making light of domination when he portrays this banquet where higher status people can easily be brought down if the host chooses and the lower status people can easily be moved up in status. He’s making a point using this illustration, this picture, about the way things always work in the world. Things change. Our positions change. So we should not cling to things as they are, especially to our positions of comfort and recognition. The saddest people I know are those who cannot and will not adapt to change, or who cling to their high positions because a whisper perhaps in a dream or on a tide of dread, tells them their position in the world will change, and they don’t want to hear it.
It’s easy to quote Jesus saying: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s easy to talk about giving up one’s status and not clinging. It’s harder to do. It’s hard to actually want someone to get the wished-for job instead of you. It’s hard to want the book deal to go to someone from a marginalized group instead of to you. It’s hard to want someone with less privilege to get the position on the sport’s team or committee, or the role in the play, instead of you. Taking a place at the back of the line so someone else has an opportunity, because this reflects the values of the reign of God—this strikes our ego and stokes our insecurities. It may be natural to feel this discomfort. This doesn’t mean you don’t value the things Jesus taught. Indeed, this discomfort helps build empathy. And empathy is a good place to start.
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