Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Don’t Be Outdone

Nowadays we don’t like to hurt anybody’s self-esteem. The solution? Give out prizes, ribbons and accolades just for showing up. My youngest son once brought home a trophy for participation.

“Hey Dad, look, I was there!”

No, actually, he didn’t say that. He rightly recognized even at the age of six or seven that there was little value to an award received for no particular effort. For merely dignifying an event with his illustrious presence. For managing to breathe and stand upright without any unanticipated side-effects.

I don’t know where the trophy is now and I suspect neither does he. If you ask me it was kind of pathetic.

On that subject, this verse jumped out at me this morning:
“Outdo one another in showing honour.”
I like the spin the ESV puts on a very familiar command. You may be used to slightly different wording; I know I am.

Two Different Emphases

The NASB, for instance, reads “give preference to one another in honour”. The more traditional King James wording is “… in honour preferring one another”. The NIV says “Honour one another above yourselves”. Each of these translations assumes the two parties upon whom I may opt to confer esteem are (1) me, and (2) my fellow believers. Paul would therefore be teaching that I ought to give my fellow believers greater recognition than I accord myself.

The ESV and the Holman Bible, on the other hand, make honouring each other into a kind of genial competition between believers. (I also like Darby’s translation, which reads “… each taking the lead in paying [honour] to the other”.) In this alternative scenario I am not choosing between conferring honour on myself or on someone else, but rather I am choosing to make a more concerted effort to honour my fellow Christians than would otherwise be the case.

Who’s right? Obviously scholars differ. The distinction in meaning is not earth-shattering, but I think there’s merit in the revised emphasis. It suggests not so much that I divert my focus from myself to others (which is certainly important and in keeping with the teaching of scripture elsewhere), but that I increase my effort and fine-tune my attitude in doing something for them which I ought to have been doing all along.

It’s also noteworthy that the latter interpretation is more consistent with the context, which is very much about performing our various services to others in the Body of Christ with intensity and enthusiasm rather than by rote or out of mere duty: “Let love be genuine”, “the one who leads, with zeal”, or “be fervent in spirit”. It’s not just about serving; it’s about how you serve.

What is Honour?

Honour is simply high respect, esteem, recognition, distinction.

It is important to realize that the command is about showing respect, giving recognition, according esteem and conferring distinction. There is nothing in the verse about demanding the same for ourselves. I mention this rather obvious fact because I’ve run into more than one believer who manages to read the instructions of the apostles mostly backward. What I mean is this: the primary lesson they learn from any command — take, for instance, the command to “love” — is that it enshrines for them a new right rather than a new responsibility. They then become very conscious of whether other Christians are loving them adequately while remaining mostly unconcerned about the extent to which they love others.

Honour is one of those things that at least on the surface appears nicer to receive than to dish out, but the verse is inarguably about doing the latter.

There is also nothing in the verse about whether we think the potential honouree meets our standard of merit. The objects of such honour are our fellow believers, and the honour we are to confer on them has nothing to do with either our own natural ability to appreciate them or their own natural qualities, but rather with the new life of Christ that indwells both us and them.

Honour that is Owed

Honour is sometimes about giving to individuals something that is owed to them. “Honour your father and mother”, we are reminded, and Paul also points out that this is the first commandment (perhaps indicative of its significance) and that it comes with the promise that it may go well with us and that we may live long. It is appropriate to honour our parents. To fail to do so is a disturbing indication of a troubled society on its way to judgment.

“If I am a father,” the Lord says in Malachi, “where is my honour?” There are persons to whom honour is always due, and to whom failing to show honour is not merely a choice but a disgrace.

Honour that is Not Owed

But there are also times when it is appropriate to honour those who, to our way of thinking, are not intrinsically worthy of it. Paul says elsewhere that “… on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour”.

This statement comes in the context of Paul’s teaching about the church as a body with many diverse members (he lists Jews, Greeks, slaves and free men as examples of this) and seems conscious of the fact that while God sees all believers “in Christ” and therefore each as worthy as their Saviour, we have a very human tendency to make natural distinctions based on ethnicity, social standing and other irrelevant metrics. Whether or not a “member of the body” is considered “honourable” by my own personal definition has no bearing on how I should treat him or her. In fact, the teaching of the verse seems to be that those I consider the least “honourable” by my standards should receive the most extravagant shows of respect and esteem.

But honour is not a prize we give fellow Christians just for existing. It is not the spiritual equivalent of my son’s participation trophy. It is not the natural man or woman I am really honouring when I go out of my way to show respect for my fellow believers — it is the Lord himself. In singling out the least of our brothers and sisters for distinction simply because they belong to Christ, I am both showing my love and appreciation for him and ensuring myself the reward he has promised for such acts.

How Can We “Outdo One Another”?

Competing is actually not an intrinsically anti-scriptural concept, notwithstanding its diminished status in the public school system. In fact, there’s not a lot of scripture one can cite in favour of equality of reward from God for service and quite a number of passages to suggest the opposite. Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it”.

In this particular contest, how do we win the prize? Well:
  • we can show greater honour;
  • we can show honour more frequently;
  • we can show honour with more enthusiasm; and
  • we can show honour to those who, to all appearances, deserve it the least.
In the Christian life, I don’t want accolades for merely showing up. Most people don’t. Nothing I am in and of myself makes me (or you, for that matter) worthy of honour.

Christ alone is worthy. But one way we can make that known is by showing honour to those who belong to him.

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