Jesus on Status Symbols
Jesus was once at a party. As people were funnelling through the door he perched himself at the edge of the room and observed the guests as they came in. With owl-eyed attention he watched a silent competition unfold as people raced to fill the seats of honour. Suddenly, the commotion stopped as Jesus caught the attention of the room with a brazen parable. The parable was as subtle as talons on flesh. Jesus’ topic – how to behave at a party. The moral of the story – to take the lowest seat, not the highest, because, Jesus warned, he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
The Ugly Truth about Snob Goods
Most of us don’t move in social circles where seating placement is a sign of self-importance. However, our culture has devised other ways for us to measure our worth relative to other people. One of the most pervasive methods is that of branding. Branding is a function of what economist call ‘snob goods’. Snob goods are goods the value of which is in part determined by the feeling that, by owning them, you identify with a superior group of people. The quality of these goods is not necessarily better than that of other, similar products. For snob goods, value is as much perceived as real.
Snob goods are a part of everyday psychology. If I drink coffee from a Starbucks mug, this mug is more than a container for my drink. It is a statement that I have good taste regarding caffeine – better taste than uninformed people who still drink instant. A MacBook is more than a device for computing; it is a testimony to Lenovo-owning neighbours that, unlike them, I represent style, quality, and performance. Wearing a Superdry jumper does far more than keep a torso warm. It tells everyone on the pavement that I belong to a higher order of human beings, ‘cool people’, not to that group who wears clothing from Asda and Tesco. If in Jesus’ day people rushed to the table to find a seat of honour, we sweep the racks of Next hoping to find a jacket that will tell the world, ‘I am worthy of respect.’
What Status Symbols Reveal about the Human Heart
Our desire for status symbols, or snob goods, reveals three things about our sinful nature. First, it tells us that we are all people pleasers. Our default operating programme in life is to make people happy, not God. One of the most powerful indicators of this is shame. Most of us would feel more embarrassed to show up at work in a baggy pair of 90s jeans than we would feel to laugh at a dirty joke among colleagues. Why? The sad truth is that we are more concerned to please people than God.
Second, snob goods indicate that we are all starbelly sneetches. In a memorable book Dr. Seuss imagined a species that measured the status of members by whether or not a creature had a star on his belly. The story was, of course, a parable for the real world. To view someone as having superior value because he drives a BMW is no more intelligent than to admire him for having a tattoo on his stomach. And yet we do.
Third, we learn that we all struggle with status anxiety. Such anxiety makes sense for those who do not know the love of God. Apart from Christ, the human ego is as stable as a blade of grass. Christians, however, do not have this excuse. God has given us an infinite measure of dignity and worth by adopting us into His family. Yet, for some sinister reason, this is not enough. We still feel a shortage of self-worth, and so we buy a pair of Nike trainers hoping to ‘top-up’ with a pair of sneakers.
What Brand Would Jesus Wear?
Jesus didn’t live in a culture with branding. Although there were colours, fabrics, and styles that indicated status, in general, people didn’t think as much about clothing or products as we do today. Therefore, it is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what Jesus would do in a culture like ours where branding and status are mutually affirming. Would he engage in a system whereby through ‘having’ some are labelled ‘have-nots’? Would he tell parables about arriving to parties in North Face fleeces and Jimmy Choo heels instead of vying for a special seating arrangement? In truth, I don’t know. However, I do know that Christians must be prayerful about how to humble themselves in the midst of a status hungry generation. The answer is never legalism. The answer is never assimilation. The challenge of following Jesus is always the same: find the narrow gate, leave the crowd, and go with the Spirit wherever he leads, no matter how counter-cultural, or uncool, that might be.