The genius of Jesus’ ethic: selfish selflessness

The genius of Jesus’ ethic: selfish selflessness

At lunch time two 7th-grade girls happened to walk into their school’s cafeteria at the same time.  While going through the line to get food, they each scanned the lunch tables, hoping to find a good place to sit.  They each spotted the same person, a popular cheerleader, sitting at the head of a table that was already beginning to fill up–mostly with boys.  Cute boys.

There wasn’t much time.

Both of the girls had briefly met this cheerleader before (on separate occasions), and the cheerleader had surprised them both by not only how kind and affirming she was but also by how humorously self-effacing she was.

Even more than that, the chance to be seen sitting next to her in the cafeteria could only be a good thing:  maybe other girls–not to mention boys–would take notice and then take interest in them.

By the time the two girls got their food, there were only 3-4 spots left at the table–several right next to the cheerleader and one at the opposite end of the table.

Where should they sit?

They didn’t really know the cheerleader that well, so if they just sat right next to her, it may look presumptuous of them–it could end up being really awkward, and the cheerleader may think to herself, “Why’s she sitting next me for?”  Even worse, what if the open seats next to her are “saved” for others, for her close friends?

But if they chose the open spot at the other end of the table, at least they would be at the same table as the cheerleader.  And this way they weren’t being presumptuous.  But what if the cheerleader didn’t even notice them at all?  Then everyone at the table would be thinking, “Who’s she, and what’s she doing here?”

But if the cheerleader did notice her and then invited her to the head of the table, that would be . . . perfect.  Everyone would notice–boys included.

So the first of the two girls, fearing that the cheerleader wouldn’t otherwise notice her, went and sat down right next to her.  The second girl, however, not wanting to be presumptuous and recalling how kind the cheerleader had been to her the first time they met, decided to sit at the opposite end of the table.


Both of these 7th-grade girls wanted the same thing:  they wanted, like most all 7th-grade girls–and, indeed, like all humans–to be noticed, to be desired, to have status and value.

In fact, they didn’t just want status per se; they wanted status relative to othersgreater status; more importance.  Not just a place at the table, but the best place at the table.

But here’s what’s interesting:  although they wanted the same thing (i.e., greater status), they went about getting it in two very different–in fact, opposite–ways.  Why?

The first girl feared that the cheerleader wouldn’t notice her, while the second girl believed she would.  The first acted out of fear; the second, out of faith.

What’s really important to see is that both are taking a risk:  the first girl, by sitting beside the cheerleader, risks being embarrassed (“Um . . .that seat’s saved”); the second girl, by sitting at the other end of the table, risks being ignored.

So both are taking risks, different risks, based on their differing evaluations of the cheerleader:  would she take notice or not?

Would she?  Ask a 7th-grade girl.

Regardless, both are taking risks, and both are making evaluations, as they both seek status, relative status.  But each is pursuing that status very differently–the first by being self-asserting, the second by being self-effacing.  And it all turns on the character of . . . a cheerleader.  Hmmm . . .

And we all know what cheerleaders are like, don’t we?

Or do we?

Caricatures and stereotypes of cheerleaders have often been made–by both men and women.  But how true are they?  And how true are they of this cheerleader?


When Jesus was invited to eat at the house of a prominent religious leader, he noticed how the guests were choosing their seats at the table, and he said,

          When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.”  Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.
          But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.”  Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.

Violating our late-modern Western social sensibilities, Jesus fails to condemn the pursuit of relative status:  apparently, it’s entirely okay to want the seat of honor at a social gathering.

In fact, Jesus is actually instructing the guests on how to get it.

Already in Luke Jesus has spoken of this social self-interest, or (more baldly) selfishness:  “It is the one who is least among you who is the greatest.”

And, at the Last Supper, when an argument breaks out among the disciples concerning which of them is the greatest (the disciples argue about this twice in Luke’s Gospel), Jesus–shockingly to our sacred egalitarian dogma–doesn’t chide them for their pursuit of higher social status (what we might call “greater-ness”).  Rather, he  explicitly endorses this deeply human impulse for relative status:

“The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

Rather than reprimanding our impulse for relative status, Jesus redeems that impulse by redirecting it:  “when invited [to a meal], take the lowest place…; then you will be honored in the presence of all the guests.”

In order to go up, go down.

The surest path, says Jesus, to self-exaltation is self-humiliation.

Herein lies the genius of Jesus’ ethics:  he makes selflessness (self-humiliation) an act of selfishness.

So not only does Jesus redeem status-seeking, he redeems self-interest.

And that is simply brilliant.

(By the way, for the more philosophically and theologically minded:  Immanuel Kant would have absolutely, and wrongly, hated this idea, as would most all of the so-called ‘agapist’ theologians–Kierkegaard, Barth, Yoder and others–who followed; also, it would quite probably have, unfortunately, made Martin Luther nervous.  If interested, read chapter 4 of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs.)

Get this:  if we are pursuing status by proud self-assertion and self-promotion–i.e., by trying to sit right next to the cheerleader, our pride does not make us only disobedient; it makes us dumb:  those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  Selflessness, then, isn’t just the selfish thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.  And further still, such selflessness is not only selfish and smart, it’s actually quite straightforward:  it requires no brilliance, beauty, brawn, utterly disinterested in either our jeans or our genes; it’s just plain inclusive.  In so doing, Jesus democratizes greatness:  to whom isn’t higher status now available?  (Here, by the way, Jesus is redeeming our misguided egalitarian impulses.)

But how can we truly know this?  I mean, how can we be sure?   As with the two 7th-grade girls, isn’t it a risk either way?


But here’s the thing:  Jesus didn’t only brilliantly describe this selfish selflessness. He boldly did it:  repeatedly he told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified “and after three days would rise from the dead.”  He took the risk first.  And that raises the question:

Did he make the wrong decision?

As with the choice facing the two 7th-graders, Jesus’ decision–and ours–turns on the character of another:  for them, it was one cheerleader; for Jesus, and for us, it is the One in charge of the universe.

And, as with cheerleaders, caricatures and stereotypes of God have often been made–by the religious and irreligious alike.  But how true are they?

Would anyone know the answer to that better than Jesus?

Did Jesus get God wrong?

Are the stereotypes and caricatures true?  Do we 21st-century late modern  Westerners know something Jesus doesn’t?  Or does he know something we don’t?

So, as we’ve said, embracing Jesus’ ethic of selfish selflessness is smart. And not only is it smart, it’s straightforward:  anyone can do this.

But if it’s so smart and straightforward, why don’t more people do it?

Because in addition to being smart and straightforward, it’s also, in a way, very sacrificial:  in life, taking the lowest–that is, the least important–seat at the banquet table means being ignored; it means being disregarded by the world (and, sadly / wrongly, at times even by the church).  To the extent that we value the perverted and passing opinions of people more than the permanent and perfectly just opinion of our heavenly Father–to the extent that we have been captivated by the sirens of “privilege”, this sacrifice will be regarded as altogether too great, and we will fight to get our place at the head of the table:  we will exalt ourselves, only to one day be humbled–humiliated.  By God.

But if we prefer the perfectly just opinion of our heavenly Father, the One who (over and against the world) actually values selflessness more than brilliance, beauty, pedigree and privilege–that is, if like Jesus we “entrust ourselves to the One who judges justly” (1 Peter 2.23) and endure the disregard and disdain of men just as Jesus did, we are doing what the New Testament calls “sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”

That is, when we take the least important seat, we find ourselves sitting where Jesus sat (though, in truth, he sat at a seat far more humiliating than almost any seat we could chose).  And in that seat we get a small but powerful taste of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us:  he humbled himself for us.  Here in the least important seat we will find–I myself have found–sweetest communion with our Savior.

Jesus’ ethic is selfish selflessness:  smart, straightforward, sacrificial yet leading to sweetest communion with our Savior.  It redeems status-seeking, self-interest, and egalitarianism.

It’s undeniably genius.  Simply brilliant.

But it’s not only brilliant.  It’s beautiful.  His is a wisdom so great that it leads us to wonder at his ways.  And that wonder has a name:  it’s called worship.

Does not Jesus’ ethic beckon us to worship God with all that we are?

Let us follow Jesus in taking the least important seat.


“To those who by persistence in doing what is noble seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”  – Romans 2.7


From Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken

Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’’er sin and fear and care:
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’’s eternal days before thee,
God’’s own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

4 thoughts on “The genius of Jesus’ ethic: selfish selflessness

  1. Glad you wrote this post, it’s something I’ve really never understood. And it still doesn’t completely follow for me–maybe you can explain a little more. To me, if you are humbling yourself only to be exalted, the intended ends is still to be exalted, which seems to negate the purpose of humbling yourself. What do you do once you are exalted? You are no longer poor in spirit, meek, or humble (if exaltation is what you set out to receive). Can you be truly humble if you’re using as a means to an end? I find it hard to believe I could.

    I’ve wondered if maybe it has more to do with practicing humility so that you will no longer desire to be exalted. I’ve always thought the advice has a similar to sound to the 1 John 5 proclamation that whatever we ask for in accordance with God’s will, he will grant. This seems a kind of training to align ourselves with God’s will, trusting God to work rather than putting it in our own hands.

    What do you think?

    1. Great question (as ever, Miss Pate!). In answering your question, it may be helpful to distinguish between a person’s character and one’s status in the eyes of others–that is, between the personal attribute of selflessness and a public status of humiliation. The most straightforward example is Jesus: he is and will always be selfless, yet the New Testament says that he went from a status of humiliation (from his birth to crucifixion) to a state of exaltation, all the while, of course continuing to be selfless (which we often perhaps confusingly, call humility).

      One of my favorite NT passages (often overlooked) is the parable in Luke 12, in which house-servants are called to wait vigilantly at the door for the return of their master (the master clearly being Jesus, who will “return” at the “end” of history). Then they are told:

      “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.”

      So here is a picture of Jesus returning in all his glory and power (exaltation), and what will he do? Serve his servants. Why? Because that’s who Jesus (still) is: selfless.

      Jesus’ change in public status–from humiliation to exaltation–is, of course, due not to any change in his character (from selflessness / humility to selfishness / pride), but to a relativizing / marginalizing of the dominating social values of any (sinful) human culture: apparently, the court of human public opinion is not final. Indeed, not only is it not final, its criteria for judging are profoundly flawed (surprise, surprise).

      But Jesus’ exaltation (via his resurrection and ascension) is, for all people–especially Christians–an advertisement (if you will) of what is to come at the final judgment: that is, Jesus’ exaltation establishes that “those who humble themselves WILL BE exalted” (and vice versa); public opinion will in fact shift when every knee bows. In this way, the selfless person (who are so often presently, wrongly humiliated–and many of whom are women, given the overwhelmingly androcentric social values of human history) ought to be lastingly encouraged, while the exalted (who are so often presently, wrongly esteemed/exalted) are forever forewarned: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4.10; 1 Peter 5.6).

      A final thought: there is no tension between the virtue of selflessness and the desire to receive status and affirmation of worth. God created humans as social beings, who rightly should desire the approval most of all from God but rightly also from other humans. But this is sabotaged when social values are perverted and reprioritized by a sinful humanity.

      Hope that helps! Feel free to push back!

      1. Oops: one error in the 2nd to last paragraph; it should read: “while the SELF-SERVING person [not “the exalted”] (who are so often presently. . . “

      2. That definitely helps, I think your first paragraph really got to something–I immediately associate selfishness with exaltation. I wonder where this comes from, maybe some association of exaltation with riches and the reflection of that in American society, where we only feel like the underdogs are the “real people” and the “good people”. Maybe some it comes from some truth in that it’s hard for humans to be exalted and selfless. But good point that they aren’t the same thing, and that we see them both in Jesus!
        Thanks! 🙂

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