In over a decade of working with middle school age kids, one situation I occasionally see is the child who suddenly tries on a new personality. Like the "New Jan Brady" in a black wig, a normally quiet child becomes loud and boisterous; a normally shy child becomes bossy and assertive.
The child doesn’t announce this intention, but it’s not hard to spot once you’ve seen it a few times. It's as if the child gets a picture in his head what “cool” means to him, and becomes determined to create the facade. Since television aimed at this age group seems to portray life as a series of madcap adventures (complete with a laugh track), this usually manifests as a forced, manufactured hilarity. Most of the time, though, the problem goes away. Whether the experiment backfires or just becomes exhausting, the child eventually starts acting like himself again.
Adults are more sophisticated in their efforts, but we do the same thing. Of all our potential social faux pas, the most embarrassing is when we try to impress and accidentally tip our hand. A person tries to pass himself off as more knowledgable than he is, only to realize he’s been talking to an expert. We announce that we’ve discovered the latest and greatest, only to learn that it is yesterday’s news. When others do it, we scoff. When we do it, we stew in humiliation.
In Luke 14:7-11, Jesus addresses this tendency of the human heart.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ 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, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus didn’t offer this as a way to avoid social humiliation (although it’s pretty good advice in that regard), but to show how we strive for worldly adulation. We clamor after the place of honor to convince ourselves that we’re doing okay. But worldly honor is elusive and fleeting. Often we think we’ve grasped it, only to see it disappear in a vapor.
Jesus goes on in this passage to discuss our tendency to do good only for those who can build us up.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)
Our picture of success should not be found in earthly things, but in bringing glory and honor to the Father. This releases us from the futile cycle of seeking approval from people, and frees us to seek only the approval of God.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)