Uniform 01.19.2014: Upstairs or Downstairs?

Luke 14:7–18a, 22–24

Last year, I discovered British television. I was both entertained and surprisingly moved by shows like Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Broadchurch. Another British show just began its fourth series on PBS Masterpiece. Downton Abbey follows the wealthy Crawley family over a period of several years beginning in 1912 and continuing (so far) through 1922. Most of the story lines center on romances and class drama, so it’s a soap opera. But it’s a soap opera with style and culture!

While big historical events take place outside the castle-like Crawley residence—the Titanic sinking, World War I, the Interwar Period, and more—the people inside face their own crises of love, loss, and injustice. One of the highlights of the show is the class hierarchy within the walls of Downton. Robert, head of the family and master of the estate due to his wife Cora’s inheritance, employs a massive staff of servants to keep the place running and care for his family’s (many, many) needs.

The wealthy, pampered family members play out their dramas upstairs, but downstairs, where the staff members cook, wash, dine, launder, and live, is full of its own power plays, romances, and conflicts. Some of the story lines have focused on members of the staff who try to rise to a higher level in society. Because they are born into their particular class, they’re expected to stay in it and find appropriate work. Though some of their relationships with the Crawleys approach friendship, the line is firmly drawn, and you can sense the disdain from the upper class.

Meals are especially significant at Downton Abbey. The folks upstairs have a separate piece of silverware for every food, and servants come and go with the elements of the meal. Downstairs, it’s more relaxed, but if anyone from above ventures into the staff dining room, all the workers rise to their feet in a show of respect.

In our text, Jesus goes to eat a fancy Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee leader. He probably knows all the rules of etiquette, but the first thing he does is heal a man. And then, noticing the careful way all the upper-class people choose their seats, he gives them countercultural advice: “Don’t sit at the place of honor. Humble yourself. And when you have a fancy meal, invite all the outcasts instead of your rich pals.” (Lk 14:8-14)

Afterward, he tells them a story about a wealthy man whose invited guests shunned him and made excuses not to attend his dinner. In his anger, the man sent out a new invitation, this time to “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (v. 21). He didn’t stop until his house was full of unusual, questionable guests.

What would Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham and mother to Robert, think about that? I’m certain she’d do more than raise her eyebrow.

And as Jesus continued to attract followers, he too continued to raise eyebrows. This story is like so many others about Jesus: another checkpoint on the road to his execution by those who simply couldn’t tolerate his wide-open gospel. In a society that separated people into clearly defined roles, complete with certain expectations, Jesus’ words were shocking. They were devastating. They were revolutionary.

In 2014, we don’t often speak of class. Especially in America, we like to think that each individual has the ability to work hard and accomplish whatever he or she desires. “Be what you want to be. You can do anything if you put your mind to it. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” But is the playing field really so level? Does every person truly have the same chance for success? If Jesus came in person to our homes, our towns, and our churches, what story would he tell us?


1. In the early nineteenth century, what do you think it was like to be born into a class of wealth, entitlement, and privilege?
2. What do you think it was like to be born into a working class that served those in the higher levels of society? Would you have ever tried to change classes?
3. Do you think the class system is still in place? If so, how? Where do you see the lines drawn most clearly?
4. If Jesus came in person to your home, town, or church, what story do you think he would tell?
5. What can you do to erase a line that divides you from another person?

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.


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  1. Paul Folmsbee says

    That’s a very interesting comparison, Kelley. I suspect that meals at Downtown Abbey would resemble a State Dinner at the White House. (Grin.)
    Thanks for the insight!