A tweet today from @BerniceKing displayed a photo of a sign. Bernice King is daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sign reads, “Blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine brighter. Remember that.” That’s an appropriate comment on our text for this week. But it takes some context to see how the comment fits with the text.
Malina and Rohrbaugh help us to remember and understand that the culture in ancient Palestine (and in the Roman Empire as a whole) was a “limited good” society. Such a society is based on the certainty of scarcity. They describe this certainty as the conviction that “all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger,” they continue, “a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else” (page 324).
Seating at a banquet or feast in this society was a marker of honor status. Honor was one of those limited goods in short supply. Therefore, the seating chart was a contested space that produced winners and losers in the honor/shame game. In a limited good society, solutions to conflicts are always win/lose propositions, zero sum games. In situations of scarcity, there are very few win/win scenarios.
In a limited good society, then, “blowing out someone else’s candle” might not make my candle any brighter. But it would mean that my candle was more noticeable and more noticed. Reducing and removing other candles was the way to make my light the most powerful. If the metaphor is stretching a bit too thin for you, in the limited good setting, putting others down was the way to raise myself up.
This means that if I elevate myself, then I must put someone else down. If I go higher, someone else is forced to go lower. If I have more, then you have less. There is, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note, an intimate relationship between power and wealth. While in modern societies, wealth leads to power, in ancient societies it was power that lead to wealth (page 324).
Therefore, competition for honor and status was also competition for wealth. Blowing out the candles of others wasn’t just a way to get status. Success in that game would produce the privilege, power, and property that marked “the good life” in ancient Roman society.
While there are differences between the ancient, pre-industrial societies of the Bible and modern, post-industrial societies in the West, there are at least as many similarities. In both theory and propaganda, we believe we live in an abundance society rather than a scarcity society. In practice, however, capitalism depends on scarcity to drive markets. And scarcity always leads to abuses of power and concentrations of wealth. One only has to reflect on the recent ups and downs of both gas prices and oil company profits to see the connection.
Scarcity-driven fear fuels the continued racism in the United States. It has formed this country’s immigration policy ever since the end of the Civil War. The concern is that Black people will get the vote and the power that comes with it. Then White people will have a smaller slice of the pie. The concern is that “hordes” of immigrants will flood our Southern borders and “take away our jobs.” Therefore, we build walls and empower border officials to use violence at will.
The White Evangelical Protestant Christians who have had disproportionate political power and cultural influence over the last forty years in the United States know that this imbalance is changing. Therefore, we experience White Christian Nationalism in the full light of day as the response. “We” will keep “our power and position” in the face of changing political, demographic, and economic realities. “We will not be replaced!” the signs say. Such power and position are experienced as diminished when shared. That’s zero-sum thinking in a limited good society.
Scarcity thinking is a tool to maintain the power, position, privilege, and property of elites (and their foolish and unwitting clients and lackeys) who benefit from the status quo. Abundance thinking destabilizes that system and is rejected by the status quo. If there’s enough at the banquet for everyone, then there’s no way to control and coerce people with scarcity. In abundance thinking, we light all the candles and illuminate the world.
Abundance thinking is basic to the Kin(g)dom of God. God has enough places at the table and to spare. There’s no point competing for seats because every spot is the place of honor. Every table is the head table. When you have everything, having “more” won’t improve your position. The call of the Church is to be the place where the world can see what God’s abundance looks like and how it works. We don’t do a very good job of that, but it remains our vocation.
That being said, what can it mean in the parable when the host (God) comes to me and says, “Friend, go up higher”? I hear an echo from the Gospel of John in this command. In John 12, Jesus tells the crowd, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, NRSV). Jesus uses the same verb for “lifted up” as we find in Luke 14:11 (translated there by the NRSV as “exalt”). Going up higher means going toward Jesus.
In John 12, Jesus is giving a preview of his crucifixion. The “lifting up” he means there is being elevated on the cross. In the Johannine account, Jesus’ crucifixion is his glorification. But that “lifting up” is not limited to the crucifixion. Instead, in the Johannine account, “lifting up” is the whole complex of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. We can see that in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:11-15.
When the Host commands me to go up higher, that is a command to embrace the cross, resurrection, and ascension as this saving reality unfolds in my life. It should come as no surprise that later in this chapter Jesus engages in a discourse on the cost of following him. When Jesus lifts us up, there will be a cross as part of the process. There will be some pain involved as we leave behind all the stuff we thought would save us from the scarcity of sin and death.
When the Host commands me to go up higher, the Host invites me to become ever more the image-bearing creature God made me to be from the beginning. In the Christian worldview, being saved is not only escape from what binds us. It is entrance into all that God has intended for us from the beginning. Any language about “going up” always reminds me of the idea of “theosis” – that we are made to grow ever more into the image and likeness of God, as we see that image and likeness displayed for us in Jesus Christ.
When I hear the language of “going up,” I want to make a connection to the words in Ephesians 1:17-23. The writer prays that we will have the eyes of our hearts enlightened in order to see the hope to which we’ve been called. That hope is the wealth of glory through Christ. Christ has been raised up to God’s right hand, and God raises us up and seats us with him in the heavenly places (see Ephesians 2:6). When we are called to “go up higher,” not even the sky’s the limit.
Going up higher, in this image, doesn’t mean that someone else must go lower. Otherwise, the text is just a lesson in first-century table manners. Instead, we are called to relinquish our need to get ahead by leaving others behind. That’s not how the values of the Kin(g)dom work. Our call as Jesus followers is to begin to live in that abundance here and now. That call means we resist and resign from systems that create only winners and losers. That will cost us in this life, but we our place at the table is not for this life only.
“Friend, go up higher.” Answer the call to live into a better you. That “you” is singular when directed to us as individual Christians. It is plural when directed to the Church, the body of Christ. I could hear a sermon this week from my ELCA colleagues about the need for our congregations, synods, and denominations to go up higher – to move beyond petty anxieties about survival and solvency, and to live into the abundance that we claim God gives to us in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It’s hard for institutions to live in abundance, but with God all things are possible.
Resources and References
Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Basic Books, 2017.