Why Do We Compare?
The following is from a sermon preached on Luke 22:24-27 on March 10th, 2013.
In Lent we are focusing on the word “turn.” It gives us a very concrete sense of what repentance is. Based on member feedback, we’re examining common things we face which we must turn from. We are asking the question, “What one thing is God calling me to turn from?” Today, we turn from comparison.
The Treadwall is a treadmill for rock climbing. For $7,000, you can buy one for your home and rock climb any time. All you need is a 10 foot ceiling. You grab hold of the wall, start climbing, and the panel in front of you will start rolling like a vertical treadmill, creating a never-ending rock face. There are no harnesses or safety gear required. And that’s not all. (Do I sound like a salesman?) Order the pro model and you can tilt the device to create a more challenging angle.
Comparison with others is like the Treadwall. It’s all about raising your status. We try to get ahead and above others by comparing ourselves with them. Each thing we do is another step up, another ledge reached, another foothold. And each failure of others is a step backwards for them, and upwards for me. I believe selfish comparison is a deeply-rooted sin that we all struggle with.
We compare grades. We compare salaries and jobs. We compare degrees and universities. We compare life-stage advancement – do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, a fiancé, are you married? We compare the attention we get from the opposite sex – did he look at me instead of her? We compare our bodies. We compare clothes. We compare our families, our children. We compare our morality and behavior. We never say it, but we think to ourselves, “I’m better than her or him.” Or, “I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so.” We feel good when we’re above others, and we feel deflated when others are above us. And comparison is like the Treadwall, you’re always trying to move up. The problem is, like the Treadwall, comparison is never-ending.
First century dinner etiquette was comparison for status. There was importance in who you sat with, and where you sat – these were indicators of status, honor, and power. Jesus had just concluded the solemn, intimate Last Supper with his disciples when they start scrapping like 3rd graders at recess. “Who is the greatest?” was the question. Jesus inserts himself in the conversation, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors” (Luke 22:25).
In the first century, benefactors were wealthy individuals who would use their resources to fill gaps in local government. Being a benefactor was a way to help the local community. It was also a way to gain status. If your wealth helped with public funding, then the public owed you, honored you, and admired you. “I paid for the local school to be built. It has my name on it, and don’t you forget that.” Jesus said they “lord it over others.” This played out at the dinner table in that table etiquette recognized status by seating arrangement. Where you sat differentiated your status.
But Jesus upends the social norms by challenging the thought that greatness is achieved by high status. He says in verse 26, “But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” The “youngest” or the “servant” are examples of low status. Children and slaves had few rights and no status. Being a benefactor is not inherently bad. Being wealthy, successful, or good at what you do is not evil. The problem is when you leverage it for status.
But Jesus radically upended the social norm by using status for service. Leverage all that you have, not to compare with others, but to serve others. As opposed to society’s typical status-honor system, Jesus claimed that the greatest should become the least. The wealthiest should be serving the poorest. The strongest should be using their strength for the weakest. The one at the top of the wall should descend and help those at the bottom.
Why do we compare? We tend to compare with those who are closest to us – classmates, co-workers, friends, and siblings. Why do we do this? I think we compare because we feel that we’re not good enough. We’re always looking at what others are doing because we wonder, “Am I smart enough? Beautiful enough? Skilled enough? Likeable enough?”
One of my first jobs was bussing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant. These are the bottom of the food service food chain. (I remember clearing a table and accidently dropping a butter knife down a woman’s back.) There were two types of servers that I worked with. Some looked at people and only saw customers or clientele. Customers were a means of advancement, a way to make money, a means of climbing the Treadwall of status. But another type of server saw them not only as customers, but as people. They treated each customer as a person, learning their name and story as they served them.
Jesus said, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk. 22:27). Jesus is not one who sits at the table. He is the one serving. He sees you not as a means to an end, but for the person that you are. He does not compare for status. He uses his status for service. He has cleared your dirty dishes. He has scraped your scraps and messy plate. He accepts no wages or tips. He keeps no tab of debt. He just gives and gives and gives.
You compare because you fear that you are not good enough. Sorry, but you’ll have to take that up with the Great Servant King. He has come to serve you, just as you are. As Luke illuminates the rest of the story, we learn the depths of his service. Betrayal, denial, humiliation, shame, and death. The King is stripped naked, mocked, unjustly tortured, and dehumanized. The Lord assumes the lowest status for your sake.
No more Treadwall for you. Comparison is a sick, never-ending cycle. There is no need to rival, and no need to tear others down to build yourself up. The world’s Great King has come to serve you. Turn from comparison that’s for status, and turn to status that’s for service.
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