“‘And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:15).

“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” (Luke 10:17-21).

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

I recently heard an outrageous story that unfortunately was also true. A couple went out to dinner at an upscale restaurant with some friends in a Southern coastal town. They chose as an appetizer a crab and lobster dish that contained some exotic ingredients. The price? $85. $85! For an appetizer! Something that will be consumed in 15 minutes or less and digested. I can only imagine what the entire meal cost! In what universe does spending so much for an appetizer constitute sound financial judgment?

Of course, the point was not to demonstrate responsible stewardship of resources or to show generous hospitality. Nor was it even to have a sensual experience of delight in rich food. Rather, the couple wanted to confirm their status as conspicuous consumers, to gain bragging rights with their colleagues and friends. In a word: prestige. In telling the story of how they spent $85 for an appetizer, they implicitly referenced their wealth and at the same time shamed and belittled their listeners, in effect saying “I can afford to eat in such a restaurant, and you can’t.”

A business decided to move from its location in a wooded office park to the downtown area of a small city to provide better accessibility for and visibility to its clientele. Though there were cheaper options for a new place, those in charge decided to renovate an historic building. No expense was spared for furnishings, such as a custom-made conference table costing five figures. The lobby was done in marble. With some difficulty, an elevator was put in the old structure, which had three floors, along with new wiring for Internet and cable TV. But the conference room with its magnificent table had no built-in media capability. The CEO had nixed that expense. The kitchen had to double as a work room. There was no place for employees or visitors to park conveniently. The marble flooring cracked and got scratched. In the drive for prestige and the visual “wow” factor, practical considerations had been forgotten or never considered. Tremendous and potentially bankrupting expense had been incurred, but none of it mattered for the day-to-day operations or future success of the business.

One would think churches would know better, since supposedly they follow One who called on his followers to refuse exaltation and humble themselves. Unfortunately, the lust for prestige burns in the hearts of “Christians” of every stripe. The tall-steeple church on the hill measures its worth not in the quality of its ministries and the depth of its compassion for the hurting, but in the size of its endowment, the percentage of its members who hold positions of power in the community, and the address and purchase price of the pastor’s home. The formerly mainline denominations long for a return to the heady civil religion days of the 1950s, when their leaders had the ear of presidents and corporate moguls and appeared on the covers of newsmagazines. The little country church that hasn’t taken in a new member or had a birth in years is expected by the bureaucrats all of a sudden to grow and change now that people are moving into the area from the nearby large city. All so the Powers-that-Be can crow and say: “See, we can get the numbers, too, just like the evangelicals!” The fundamentalists of the Religious Right (RR) believe their worldview will be validated, and they can rightly claim victory for the kingdom of God and his righteousness when governments and their agencies buy the RR’s agenda of teaching warmed-over creationism known as “intelligent design” in public schools (e.g., in Louisiana) or get a Christian license plate approved and produced (South Carolina). Again, the point is “look at me, look at me!”

People and organizations that seek prestige define themselves by what they have done, especially achievements that will enable them to belittle, or distinguish themselves from, others. They place great importance on looks, whether the beauty of a face and body or the architecture of a building; and numbers, whether of people involved or dollars in a bank account. But the drive for prestige is at root fed by a deep insecurity, a fear of loss, and a need for external validation.

Jesus teaches a different way. Our identity and value come not from what we have done, even casting out demons, but from belonging to God. They aren’t based on how much we own and can spend, but on how much we have been given by a God whose love and grace know no bounds.

So, as Scripture says, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23,24).

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham