In 1966, the American Council on Education conducted a study of college freshmen. They were attempting to create a set of national norms for college students – where they had come from, what they were like, and what they wanted to be when they grew up. The ACE survey has been executed every year since. The questions have changed a bit; for example, in 1966 the first possible answer to the question “Where were you raised?” was “On a farm.” In 1966 the freshmen were offered only four choices for religious affiliation; in 2015 they were offered 24. The 2015 survey asked questions about the students’ gender identify and sexual orientation; the 1966 survey asked them how likely they would be to listen to New Orleans’ Dixieland jazz. But one of the most interesting differences is the result for the question which asked these students how they compared themselves academically to their peers. Did they see themselves as above average or below? In 1966, 56.4% of students said that they thought they were above average academically. Interesting, but not entirely surprising. But in 2015, 73.5% of students claimed to be above average – and not just above average, but within the top 10% of their peers. 73.5% thought that they belonged in the top 10%. That must be a tight top 10%!
Now I am no expert in statistics, nor am I an expert in the emotional or academic lives of freshmen on our college campuses. I’m sure if you were to read the full report on the survey or to talk with Mother Johnson or another of the professors in our midst, you would learn a lot more about how these numbers actually work and what they can tell us about young people in our society. I just found myself fascinated by that image – of 73.5% trying to squish into that top 10%. Of 7 out of 10 people claiming the label of extraordinary. Of 7 out of 10 people expecting that special seat, the highest chair, the most exclusive place at the party.
This must have been what Jesus saw at the gathering we hear about in today’s Gospel reading. He had been invited to dinner at the home of a leader of the Pharisees – not exactly the recipe for a relaxing evening. For this was no ordinary dinner; it was a dinner on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were watching – watching him closely, or, in the words of another translation, watching his every move.* Suspicion was in the air, and the Pharisees were scrutinizing Jesus’ every move as if they thought he might steal a salt shaker or break Grandmother’s fine china.
They were so intent on spying on him, in fact, that they neglected to notice that they, too, were being watched. They didn’t see that Jesus was also watching them – steadily, intently, observing where they went and what they did. He saw them – not all of them, but some of them – cozying up to the host, bringing him an extra drink, a napkin when he dripped wine onto his robes. He saw them ignoring the man standing in shabby clothes in the corner, ashamed that he had nothing else to wear. As the time for dinner approached, he saw them as they swarmed closer and closer to the host like so many ecclesiastical gnats. And when the host sat down, Jesus saw some of them dive for their places like some ancient near-Eastern version of musical chairs, elbows jabbing, hips checking, bellies bumping. He saw it all, and when he took his seat at the last place, next to the man still blushing over the worn patches in his robes, he decided to tell them what he’d seen.
And what Jesus offers them is sound practical advice, an echo of wise counsel from the book of Proverbs. When looking for a place to land, better to underestimate than to overestimate. If you choose to sit in the bottom 10%, imagine how wonderful it will be when someone tells you to please, move up. You’ve placed yourself too far down; you belong up here, with the elite. But if you try to squeeze yourself into the top 10% and you don’t belong there, imagine how humiliating it will be to have someone call you out on it. You there, leave space for the truly exceptional. Make way for the truly deserving, you know, the right sort of chair sitters.
So humble yourself, Jesus says. Aim low, and you might just end up being surprised. It’s good advice for not embarrassing yourself in social situations. But Jesus isn’t just giving etiquette advice here; he’s telling all who will listen about a fundamental truth of God’s kingdom. There is no earning the top 10% in the Kingdom of God. The high place at the table is always freely given, unmerited and undeserved. So there’s no need to throw elbows for it; instead, we should be reaching out our arms to those who imagine that they don’t have a place at the table at all, those who stand alone in corners, feeling ashamed and unworthy. Those who claim that last 10% show the world what it is to truly be a follower of Christ, a disciple who views all gifts with wonder and gratitude, who gives thanks for everything with joy and delight.
I wonder what Jesus would see if he were watching us now? Or, more accurately, I wonder what he does see as he does watch us right now. Does he see us throwing elbows, trying to get ahead by some standard that only this world can measure? Does he see us casually ignoring those among us who don’t seem to belong? Does he peer into the dark corners of our minds and see the complex inventories we make there – well, she’s smarter than I am, but I have better legs. He’s not nearly as well-liked as I am at the office, even if he does seem to come up with all of the best ideas. I may not have her generous heart, but at least I’m secure financially. Does Jesus look into our hearts and see humility there, or only insecurity and fear wrought by the constant comparisons we make to each other, by our constant need to try to earn acceptance, peace, love?
But what if Jesus were to see us claiming a seat in the bottom 10%? What if he saw us choosing to sit down with those who are needy, or unsure, or troubled? What if he saw us looking for ways to help others move up higher, to invite others to the feast, to welcome a stranger and perhaps entertain an angel unawares? What if he saw us loving our neighbors instead of comparing ourselves to them, letting God be the arbiter of justice? What if he saw us truly humbling ourselves in our prayer, confessing our sins, acknowledging our ongoing need for Grace? What if he saw us giving thanks for the bottom 10% instead of gunning for the top 10?
You know, we never hear what happens with the seating arrangement at the Pharisee’s dinner. There’s no line in the Gospel that says, “Then the Pharisees realized the error of their ways and invited Jesus and his shabby friend to sit at the head of the table.” For all we know, Jesus stayed right there, at the tail of the table, in the bottom 10%, with the poor and the crippled and the lame and the blind. And really, that is right where he wants to be. "For Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."**
You know, in the Kingdom of God, below average is just fine. In the Kingdom of God, the bottom 10% is brilliant. For it is there that we are more than likely to find Christ. It is there that we are more than likely find real gratitude. It is there that we are more than likely to find ourselves no longer so distracted by all of the ways that we can get ahead. In the bottom 10%, we can truly see the people around us, and see Christ in them; we can truly strive for mutual love. In the bottom 10%, we can be content with what we have, which is nothing less than the never-failing love of God, a God who gives us his own Son, born in human likeness, who reaches down to us, to the very bottom, and says, you are mine, please, come up higher. When we have all of this, how can we not be content with what we have? For we have a seat at the table with Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is everything, all we need. 100%.
* From Eugene Peterson's The Message
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
28 August 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia