Come Up Higher!

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 25:6-7

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of the prince.

Proverbs 25:6-7, RSV

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, `Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince.”

At one level, these words from Proverbs, chapter 25, could well be found in a book on court etiquette. They give advice on how to behave at a royal function. You listen to this if you want to know the proper thing to do, so that you won’t offend others or make a fool of yourself. For us older people, this counsel might have come from Emily Post. Today it would perhaps be Ann Landers.

From another point of view, this might be a shrewd tip for the upwardly mobile, a calculated ploy for getting to the top. Everyone knows that modesty is becoming. If you defer to others, they will like you better. An unassuming stance, in which you play down your importance, will pay rich dividends. A quiet, humble bearing will get you farther in the long run than noisy self-display. On that view, you wouldn’t need a religious person or even a moralist to write this – just someone who closely observes the human scene and has an eye for what works. Here is advice for the ambitious on how to get ahead. Someone is pointing out the attractive possibilities of understatement.

I believe these thoughts have a deeper significance than that – for two reasons. First, they appear in this Old Testament book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers a good deal of homely, down-to-earth advice, which at first doesn’t sound very spiritual. But it’s all found in a context which implies a dimension of depth. The book is built on one major premise: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Never far away in these homely sayings about how to live is the element of our relationship to God. How we act in the presence of an earthly ruler, for example, hints at how we respond to a far greater sovereignty.

My second reason, which confirms the first, is that Jesus Himself picks up this theme, almost this same language, and gives it profound religious meaning. Listen to these words from the 14th chapter of the gospel according to Luke:

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, `Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, `Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

In the proverb we read, you’re not supposed to put yourself forward in the king’s presence, that is, to take a prominent place for yourself, to give yourself high visibility. You are not to “stand in the place of the great,” that is, to occupy a position which the ruler may have reserved for honored guests.

Jesus applies the same kind of counsel to those who choose their places at a marriage feast, one of His most common images for God’s coming kingdom. Don’t sit down, He says in effect, in a place of high honor lest someone more notable than you be also invited. The host may bring the other guest to where you are sitting, displacing you so that he may occupy your seat.

Now Jesus goes a step further in His teaching: When you are invited, He says, deliberately seek out and find the lowest place and sit there. Then if any promotion comes from the host, it will be by gracious invitation and he will thus honor you before the whole company. Then Jesus sums up the whole teaching with a weighty principle about God’s dealings with people. It seems to apply across the board: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

WE DON’T KNOW OUR RANKING

When I ponder what that means for my life and for yours, a number of practical insights begin to emerge. For one, none of us is able to assess his or her true rank among our fellows. Especially, we can’t gauge whether we are more or less worthy of honor than someone else. Think about some New Testament exhortations that bear on this. They assume that others are more worthy than we. Paul writes to the Romans, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” He suggests here a kind of holy competition in which each is eager to excel in showing respect and appreciation for the other. He urges the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourselves.”

We ask ourselves, “What does that mean?” It surely can’t apply to gifts or even to accomplishments. If “A” knows full well that he is a better piano player than “B”, how can “A” think or say the opposite? Surely it’s a false humility to say that another person is brighter than you are if your I.Q. is in the “genius” range and his or hers “borderline average.” And shall the veteran servant of Christ, who has spent decades in loving ministry, say that the first efforts of a fledgling believer are a greater contribution to Christ’s kingdom than his own? There’s a certain unseemliness in that, isn’t there, if not dishonesty?

Paul is speaking in both passages about showing honor, about assigning worth. On that score, how could I possibly know my position relative to that of others? Even if I had brilliant gifts and towering accomplishments, what would that prove about the quality of my stewardship? Someone else in my place, with the same opportunities, might have done much better and much more. On the other hand, I can never fully understand the difficulties against which others may be struggling, the hidden obstacles they must overcome. As I’ve spent time through the years with suffering people, I’ve come to realize that for some of them just getting through a day without giving way to despair may call for more heroism than I have exhibited in my whole life. We can’t measure the worth of anyone’s contribution without knowing their circumstances and struggles – what it cost them to make it.

In one sense, it’s eminently appropriate that I should esteem others better than myself because I know far more about my own wrongs and weaknesses than I can know about theirs. I know how mixed my motives sometimes are, how divided my heart. It shouldn’t be hard to esteem someone else more highly than I do myself. God may well find in them a more whole-souled response to Him than I have ever expressed.

In our culture today we seem obsessed with ratings and rankings. Each has his or her opinion in almost every field about who should be Number 1. Perhaps in some areas there are objective criteria to give such assignments a semblance of accuracy. But in the matter of who deserves honor, who ought to have the foremost places in God’s kingdom, who are the truly great, we’ve probably got it all wrong. Jesus gives us this unsettling hint about it at least: “What is highly esteemed in the sight of men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

WE TEND TO OVER-RATE OURSELVES

Further, these passages remind us that when we do try to rank ourselves, it’s more likely that we will over-estimate our importance than under-rate it. I was telling you a bit some weeks ago about psychological research which confirms that. It is often assumed and taught that people characteristically run themselves down, feel themselves to be inferior to others. But a number of objective tests indicate that our more prevailing errors incline the other way. Remember what Garrison Keillor says about the people in Lake Wobegon: “The men are handsome, the women are strong and the children are all above average”? That’s usually the way we fantasize about ourselves, isn’t it? A test conducted among high school seniors in which almost a million students took part included one self-assessment about how the student got along with others. Among all those hundreds of thousands of students, there was not a single one who rated himself or herself lower than average! We also tend to consider ourselves more honest than the average person, less prejudiced, more well-intentioned.

Further, we commonly overestimate how desirably we would act in emergencies. Under certain test conditions, a majority of subjects have been observed to act in rather inconsiderate or even cruel ways. When other people are told about these conditions and asked to predict how they would act under them, almost all will insist that their behavior would be more virtuous. That’s why the apostle Paul, perhaps, warns his fellow Christians in Romans 12 not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. Apparently that is a constant danger for us all. I’m not saying by that that we never under-estimate ourselves, that we never feel inferior. Obviously we do. But the evidence is massive that our much more common error is to see ourselves as more worthy of esteem than others.

LEAVING IT UP TO GOD

Because these things are true, because we can’t assess accurately our own relative worth, and because we are so inclined to self-serving error, it’s supremely fitting to leave all such determinations to God. And that’s the great thing that these Scripture passages are saying to us. The king has his own ideas about where his guests should sit. The host at the marriage feast has already assigned the places of honor before anyone arrives. And it is the Lord, not we, who really knows where we stand. Listen to Paul, who has learned that lesson well: “I know nothing against myself,” he acknowledges, “but I am not thereby justified. He who judges me is the Lord.” Think again about this closing word of Jesus: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” God, that is, will have the last word. He will make the final assessment. And that ranking, the Word implies, will be full of surprises.

Jesus made the same observation at the end of His little parable about the Pharisee and the publican. You remember the contrast between those two men. One praises his virtues; the other deplores his sin. One stands proudly erect; the other won’t even lift up his eyes toward heaven. One congratulates himself; the other condemns himself. One expresses no sense of need, while the other pleads urgently for mercy. One considers himself a shrewd judge of relative merit among his fellow men. The other casts himself on God to await His verdict alone. That last difference is crucial.

There once was a man named Saul who felt that he had met all of God’s requirements. He claimed to have lived in all good conscience before the Lord. Before the standard of the Law, he considered himself blameless. But later in his life he made remarkable statements that seemed to contradict what he had affirmed earlier. He called himself then “the chief of sinners . . . less than the least of all saints.” How was his attitude about his own worthiness so radically changed? How, after such a lofty self-assessment, did he come to feel that he was the least and the lowest?

At the heart of it all was that unforgettable meeting with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. In Jesus, Saul beheld the glory of God. He was apprehended by the grace of God. And from that moment on, he saw himself and others in a new light. He saw in a flash the depth of his own sin and unworthiness and the wonder of God’s pardoning love. He was cured of his self-exalting claims, content now to let God assign him his place.

A great reversal goes on in all of us when we become Christians. We’re ready now to call ourselves sinners, lost ones, rebels, unworthy. But then God in His amazing grace turns the tables on us again. Just when we are settling in to that lowest place where we know we belong, we hear a call kind and affirming almost beyond belief: “Friend, come up higher!”