On Being Exceptional

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A queue of people, huddled and hatted, waited in the arctic cold at a new restaurant. I was ready to walk to another establishment, but my friend moseyed past the line to the host and had the owner of the restaurant on the other end of his phone. Words were exchanged, breath vapors catching light in the dark night, and the host seated us. My friend grinned. We became exceptions; no one else did. Social capital and the “good ol’ boys” network gave us power to float through people, doors, and walls. We liked the feeling of being exceptions.

This stance starts young. Children imagine that the moon and the stars bend and bow to them. Middle school students assume that an extension will be granted on an assignment because of dance lessons. High school students presume that they will get an understanding nod on their papers because they were doing charitable work on Saturday. Parents are no different. “Your Honor, I agree we cheated the system, but we are talking about my daughter.” We are all in the same boat. We fail to see that truly exceptional people have one quality in common: they do not see themselves as exceptions.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a parable in which a Pharisee prays to God, eyes tilted to heaven, to thank him that he is an exception. He is not a robber, not an evildoer, not an adulterer. He then gazes yonder and says, “or even like this tax collector.” In the distance lies a tax collector, prostrate, pounding his bruised breast: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Unknown to the Pharisee, God’s favor rests on the tax collector because he does not see himself as an exception.

The tax collector’s call for mercy underlines a profound truth. He asks God not to give him what he deserves. He sees with clarity what he deserves: not favor, not entitlements, not extensions, not bonuses, but deserved wrath. So the cry for mercy fills his lips, and the beating of his breast fills his actions. In that bare honesty, the ancient publican finds mercy and grace.

The best people have this same heart. The irony of exceptional people is that they do not know they are exceptional and do not seek to be exceptions. That is why they are exceptional. More importantly, as they walk down this path, they find a surprising revelation: God honors the humble and exalts them.

About the Author

John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. He also serves with Ben Spalink at City Grace Church in the East Village of New York City.

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