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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Rules (Part 4): For Better Work

2007-08-02 Luke 14: 1, 7-14

The Rules (Part 4): The Rules for Better Work

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Today’s sermon is the final in a series called, “The Rules.” The subject today is “The Rules for Better Work.” Sounded like a good title for Labor Day weekend. At least it did in July, when the series was under construction. After a couple of weeks away from the pulpit, I looked at today’s scripture about seating at dinner parties and wondered, What in the world did I possibly think this had to do with Rules for Better Work? Here’s Jesus talking about a wedding feast (which is one of his favorite images of what heaven’s going to be like). He’s talking about humbling yourself – about giving away your place of honor so you won’t be embarrassed. He’s also talking about charity – about giving away your wealth, your possessions, your food – to people who have none – so that you’ll be rewarded in the next life. What did I think this had to do with rules for better work?

And then I read the runner-up entry in the AFL-CIO’s annual “My Bad Boss Contest.”

(Note, this was the runner-up. I’d share the winning story, but it’s not really relevant. I think it was submitted by someone who worked in a church – some Presbyterian church – with tennis courts – in Knoxville. I think the person’s name was Cheryl or Carla or Patty or Scott, or something. Or maybe it was from the whole group. It really doesn’t apply here.)

Anyway, the runner up in the My Bad Boss Contest was sent in by a help-desk employee at a manufacturing plant. One day the plant caught fire and smoke started to drift into the help-desk area. The employee’s supervisor, knowing that despite the inconvenience of a fire there was still work to be done, and recognizing the value of his employees, came up with an innovative plan for evacuation. Instead of ordering an immediate exit, the supervisor told his staff that only one person could leave… every five minutes… in order of seniority.

The AFL-CIO did not mention whether the supervisor received commendation or condemnation for his demonstration of both workplace ethics and merit-based salvation. You know somewhere, somebody is rubbing his or her chin and thinking, “Not such a bad idea. Maybe we could put this in our policy manual.”

Jesus, who preached that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matt 20:16) might have had a hard time with this supervisor’s reasoning, impressive as it may be. At first glance, today’s scripture is about humility and charity, both in social settings and in the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t say a word about the workplaces of 2007. But the logic of Jesus can still apply. Jesus’ teaching is a bold and harsh counter-intuitive, counter-cultural affront to any system – work, school, home, even church – where seniority and competition determine who comes out on top.

And so this little lesson about where to sit at a dinner party has a lot to say to us as we try to figure out how to conduct ourselves at work, at school, at home, and – yes – even church. If Jesus is messing with our common sense of order, what does that mean for us who want to be his followers?


Andrew Carnegie said that the law of competition “is not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.” It’s instructive that Carnegie called competition a “law,” in the same way you might talk about the “law” of gravity or the “law” of the land, or even the “law” of God. In America, we have laws to protect a spirit of free competition. Monopoly is a board game, but if your board of directors has one, your company could well be taken away and split apart. You can probably think of stores or fast-food restaurants that are off by themselves, with no competition. Their service can be just awful – cold fries, surly cashiers – and do they care? Of course not. They know they’re going to get your money. There’s no other competition. Without competition, free market capitalism just falls apart.

Hand in glove with competition is seniority. In fact, seniority may be an even more unbreakable law. The law of seniority was embedded into the brain of that supervisor whose plant caught fire. The employees with the most seniority got to evacuate first. They probably also had bigger paychecks, better Christmas bonuses, and more convenient parking spaces. It just makes sense. That’s why it’s so insulting on a gut level when some young hot shot gets promoted over older, wiser people who have dedicated years of service to a company. The law of seniority isn’t something we have to think about. We just know in our guts that it’s right.

So, if you’re in a burning plant, and you’re trying to figure out whom to save first, applying the law of competition – demonstrated in the law of seniority – just makes good business sense. So why, then, why did that poor supervisor win runner-up in the competition for world’s worst boss? (And is he or she upset over not coming in first? Bosses being what they are, there’s always next year.)


Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, is credited with having said, “My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was less competition there.” Whether Mrs. Gandhi’s grandfather meant that there were fewer people wanting to work than wanting notoriety, or whether he meant that people who want credit are more competitive, is unclear. The fact that Mrs. Gandhi quotes her grandfather’s wisdom is another illustration of the law of seniority. Whatever her grandfather Nehru’s intent, Mrs. Gandhi’s quote points out that there is an alternative to competition, and that sometimes the people who have no seniority, the people who aren’t even in the race, can be right.

This brings us back to Jesus’ teachings.

“When you are invited to a wedding feast, don't sit in the best place. Someone more important may have been invited.

And, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, don't invite your friends and family and relatives and rich neighbors…. [Instead], invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

How does this work? What good is this teaching? Well, if you take it literally, it could be very politically expedient to humble yourself (especially if you don’t need to), so that everyone will see your dramatic re-seating at the head of the table. And, if you take Jesus’ teaching literally, it’ll be infinitely expedient to invite the people who can’t pay you back for your kindness because after the resurrection, God will repay you in heaven.

But, if you take this teaching literally, it brings in an air of manipulation – manipulation of human onlookers and manipulation of God’s justice. As if people won’t know you’re faking your humility in order to get a promotion. As if God won’t know you’re handing out hand-outs in order to score points in St. Peter’s book. The Bible says God is not deceived (Galatians 6:7). God knows what you’re up to, even if you don’t. And most people, if they have any sense at all, can see straight through that kind of junk, too. They just won’t admit it if it serves their purposes, if they think you might take them up with you. Jesus taught truth, the opposite of manipulation.

So what might this parable be saying to people who are trying to get ahead – or even just trying to eke out a living – in a society whose unwritten and written laws enforce a spirit of competition?

If you go looking through your Bibles, or if you get online and look through a Bible concordance, you’ll see that there are more scripture verses than you could count about being honest in your workplace and being fair to your workers. Proverbs 20:10 says the “two things the Lord hates are dishonest scales and dishonest measures.” Ephesians 4:28 says, “Be honest and work hard.” That’s just two, and there are countless more. Be honest, be fair, be compassionate in the workplace – that’s a no-brainer. Although there are more brainless or heartless people than the newspaper can list who don’t abide by those simple rules. The rules for having a better workplace aren’t all that sophisticated. But the reason behind the rules – that’s a little fuzzier. The Bible says, “Be honest and work hard,” – but here’s the reason why. It’s not so you’ll get a good seat at the company awards banquet. It’s not so you’ll gain the respect of your grandchildren. Although both of those are pleasing things and there’s no Christian reason to be ashamed of either. “Be honest and work hard,” the Bible says, “so you will have something to give people in need.”

Now, lay that overtop of Jesus’ teaching about seating charts and party invitations, and a picture begins to emerge. God wants you to work and live (in your job, your home, your school or your churche) – God wants you to work and live with the Christ-like dignity that comes from humility and honesty – why? So you can bring dignity to the people who have none.

In this world, there are too many people who don’t have a dignified seat at the table. In this world, there are too many people who don’t have a seat at all. In this world, there are too many people who don’t have an invitation to anybody’s table. There are countless more of those people today than in Jesus’ time. People who have no status, no seniority, no chance for level-fielded competition. What do our days of labor say to them? Do the fruits of our labor belong to us (and, we might add, to the government)? Or are we honest and hard-working so, as scripture commands us, we will “have something to give to people in need”?

Jesus’ parable about seating charts and party invitations is a story with much deeper meanings. At its core, though, is a message for Labor Day and rules for all our labors. Competition, the parable teaches us, may produce results. But competition is a poor reason for going to a dinner party, and it’s an even poorer reason for going to work. Jesus blesses the fruits of our labor when our work is done not out of competition; he blesses our work when it’s done out of compassion.


I got to thinking about that story about the second-worst boss in the world, the supervisor who let his employees evacuate one every five minutes, by order of seniority. I wonder: just which person in the room would have had the most seniority? If common business practice held true, the person with the most seniority would most likely have been… the supervisor.

Now, imagine that just after the supervisor’s decree, a firefighter breaks through the door with his axe, a firefighter with the name, “Jesus” stenciled onto his helmet. Imagine the firefighter saying, “OK, now. The last shall be the first (out).” And imagine him looking at the supervisor and saying, “… and the first shall be the last.” So much for that supervisor’s seniority and competition. So much for his Labor Day.

The aim of Labor Day is to remember those who, as the Apostle Paul said in the first scripture today, have built the foundations that we now build upon. On Labor Day we remember those who have labored so that we can have dignity: food on our tables and clothes on our backs. But, according to the Bible, the point of all our labor is that everyone can share in that same dignity. We work so everyone – everyone – can have a dignified position, a respectable place not just at the earthly tables, but at heaven’s table. Everyone - even the least of us. Even us.