Scrambling for Cheap Trophies

“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11

Somewhere in my files I have a story, purportedly true, about a “Cutest Kid the World Contest.” Sponsors promised cash prizes and free trips to Disney World. Hundreds of hopeful parents showed up, their cute kids in tow, eying one another suspiciously and sizing up the competition. Tables on the stage held trophies and ribbons. The contest seemed legitimate.

It was not. Either organizers were overwhelmed and under-prepared or they simply did not have the promised prizes. After a two hour delay and growing protests, one sponsor took the microphone impatiently and unwisely said, “Well, if you want a trophy why don’t you just come up and get one!” A mad rush ensued. Parents tripped over one another, pulled and tugged on the cheap metal and plastic cups. One man grabbed the largest trophy and swaggered up the aisle with it.

I have wondered what the parents really thought after those frantic hours. Sitting at home did they ever realize all they had was a cheap, plastic trophy? They fought and labored for nothing.”

Many people collect these kinds of trophies in life. They are the achievements for which we have paid a huge price and yet receive nothing of eternal value in return. These trophies are susceptible to moth and rust and thieves. Or downsizing. Or the stock market. Or a hurricane. Or cancer. Cheap trophies provide satisfaction for a little while, but in the quiet watches of the night we sadly realize they are meaningless.

While at a banquet in the home of a prominent Pharisee, Jesus observed an unseemly scramble for the most important seats at the table. That scene prompted the parable in Luke 14:7-11. A few details on first century banquet etiquette will help clarify the setting of the parable and enable us to connect it smoothly with contemporary life.

At a great social event, the host would always sit in the middle of the center section of a horseshoe table arrangement. The guest of honor would sit at his right hand. The next most important guest would be on the immediate left of the host. Third most important in the second seat to the right of the host and so forth.

Also of note here is that first century banquets did not have an official start time. They would be set for a particular evening, but not necessarily at 7:00 pm. People would begin arriving as early as they wished, and when they did they would be tempted to take the seats of honor.

One other matter deserves a bit of attention. In the first century, the poorer folks tended to arrive first. Why? Perhaps they were hungrier. Perhaps they were more eager to be a part of a social scene. The wealthier folks tended to arrive later. Why? Well for the same reason some of us do this today. We like to arrive fashionably late, as they say. This gives the impression that we are so very busy, but were able to work your party into our hectic schedules. To arrive early is to look, well, too eager. We play the same games today don’t we?

Now in the parable, our first century Bob Uecher, thinking too highly of himself, took one of the positions of honor. The host came over to him, and somewhat apologetically explained that he was in the wrong place. How embarrassing! Our over-inflated guest has been punctured! Wanting to disappear, he slides around the table to the lowest places, and there endures the sideways glances of the higher-ups who are actually just as shallow as he, but happen to be a few rungs up on a meaningless ladder of social importance.

Why would Jesus tell such a parable? He understood human nature and knew that most people desperately try to make something of themselves. We want the place of recognition. We want the chief seat. We may try impressing the boss, or anyone for that matter, by calling attention to all that we have done for the company. I had a man tell me quite seriously that no one had done more for the church than he had! Every human being who scrambles for significance ends up with a cheap trophy.

Ironically, Jesus wants us to take the lowest place. Actually, He wants us to not rank any place of service. Just serve. Don’t compare. Serve those who are “the least of these.” Don’t be discouraged if your place seems small. You can make it glorious by simply serving whomever you find there. Life will humble you if you try to exalt yourself. So try Jesus’ way of humbling yourself and turn your attention to others. You find God’s approval.


Dr. Terry Ellis

April 23, 2012