Do you want to be happy, wealthy, healthy, smart, wise, ‘lifted higher,’ encouraged, and free to reach the heights of your potential? Then according to quite a number of people who seem to know how to get there, the key is to surround yourself with the people you want to be like, making sure that they’re people who are looking out for your success. As the line goes, if you hang out with eagles you will learn how to soar. You can’t soar like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys.
If I were to pay money to go and hear a motivational speaker or spend my money on CDs and any amount of material from self-help gurus who make a living from sharing such wisdom, I’d expect to hear this predictable thought somewhere in the mix. It makes sense. There’s a strong element of truth in the thought that we’re influenced by those around us, so if you want to reach the heights of what our culture deems to be ‘success’ then surrounding yourself with people who meet that definition will probably help you get there.
What I find frustrating is hearing preachers trot out the same thought. Over the years I’ve noticed that there are a raft of preachers out there that are effectively motivational speakers who throw Jesus into the mix and a few isolated Bible verses here and there to add some weight to what they’re saying. They’ll help you to be the best you and experience the best and fullest life you can have… now. A quick look around the internet and I can find those who will tell you that to be successful you have to surround yourself with the right people. A few Bible verses, usually from Proverbs, will back up the idea.
I want to challenge and call out this very idea for those who claim to be followers of Jesus.
The outcome of such thinking is that people usually seek to surround themselves with others who are much like themselves or those higher on the societal ladder – people who can serve the well-being of the one following the advice. The pursuit of this has little room for those who can’t lift us up. In this way of thinking the room created for those ‘beneath’ us is as charity cases to be kept at a distance lest they infect our pursuit of happiness. People following this method for success might not describe it in these terms, but it’s what the thinking encourages.
At Commoners, the Wesleyan Methodist community where I serve as the Pastor, we’ve been following the Revised Common Lectionary through the book of Luke. Any serious amount of time with Luke’s writing will leave in tatters the idea that to get ahead in life we should surround ourselves with the right people. Luke offers the exact opposite by shattering cultural norms that established and cemented that very way of thinking.
The social meal is the setting Luke regularly used to shatter such structures. At the time it was around meals that people surrounded themselves with the right personalities to ensure their own success and hopefully get lifted higher. Luke put a spanner in the works by consistently placing people in those meals that were misfits, unsavoury, poor, unable to repay any place within the meals and it was the personality of Jesus that drew those people in.
Jesus consistently put those who were bad for the social well-being of others into the center of the picture, giving them pride of place. Time and time again, to the reader of the time, the people Jesus gave his attention to and the places he went were downright offensive. He was laying the challenge for those who followed him to do the same – to be willing to sacrifice one’s success to put the misfits right in the center of God’s kingdom. Part of accepting that challenge comes from realising that we are the misfits, so who are we to exclude anybody?
Jesus didn’t treat such people like charity cases. Luke regularly wrote about how Jesus truly saw them in a way others never had, gave them attention and drew them into his circle. Even the disciples themselves were a bunch of ragamuffins – certainly not the sort of people you would surround yourself with if you wanted to be healthy, wealthy, happy, and successful.
In Philippians 2 Paul talks of Jesus himself going down to the bottom of the social ladder by becoming a slave. He’s the one that we follow.
Our lives, as far as they can, should reflect God’s kingdom, and in his kingdom at the table is a colourful, diverse, and boisterous mix of people who are very different from one another. There is a challenge for us to reflect that in our own lives. I’m no social radical yet it’s something I feel constantly challenged about and fall short of. I’m asking questions about how the faith community I’m a part of can reflect it. We’re a very new and small faith community, but I hope for the diversity to grow over time.
We’re called to do the exact opposite of creating an echo chamber designed to serve our own happiness. We’re called to knit people into our lives who are different from us, have no way of helping our societal climb, may disagree with us and test our patience, and we’re called to even have room for our ‘enemies.’ As microcosms of God’s kingdom our churches should be diverse and full of people who are different from one another. When we come around the table to break bread we should be sharing with people who have no obvious way of serving our happiness.
To be able to do this well demands that our center of gravity, our sense of place in the world, and the shape of our identity do not rest in what other people think about us or do for/to us. How we pursue grounding those things in a bigger truth is a topic for another post.
The challenge does not negate wisdom and boundaries when it comes to people who are truly damaging and dangerous, but it does look at the idea of pursuing success by surrounding ourselves with the ‘right’ people and leaves it wanting.