“Then shalt thou have glory in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.”
In this week’s Gospel lesson we find Jesus’ advice to socially ambitious dinner guests: When you are invited to dine at high table, don’t rush headlong to the seat beside the President. He might have special guests, and ask you to move further along to make room for them, and think of the humiliation of that! Far better to go directly and conspicuously to the lowest seat. You might be asked to move up higher, and “then shalt thou have glory in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.” This is sound advice for glory-seekers, even if Jesus is making fun of them in giving it. But behind the fun of it, there is a serious meaning. The whole episode has rather the nature of a parable, and the point of it is summed up in the general conclusion:
“Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” It’s a parable about glory-seeking, and the right way to go about that. The point is that we are seekers of eternal glory, and we need to know how to attain it.
But just what is this glory? In Lewis Caroll’s admirable work, Alice Through the Looking Glass, one of the main characters, Ovalius Crassus, offers a definition of “glory.” He says it means “a nice knock-down argument.” He has just enjoyed an argument about the superiority of unbirthday gifts, on the grounds they are given far more often —364 days of the year — and he finds glory in his triumph. Alice is unconvinced by the definition. She claims that “that’s not what ‘glory’ means”; and we’d probably share her skepticism. At any rate, a nice knock-down argument is only one sort of glory, and a very academic sort at that. And it had better not be eternal because it would be a particularly nasty form of hell.
The glory of the nice knock-down argument, like the glory of chief seats at dinner, does not amount to very much. These are just poor images of a higher glory, to which all desire of glory points, and short of which such desire never rests. Beyond all vain glories, there is a glory worth the seeking.
In modern times, “glory” has become almost a bad word, especially if it is coupled with “seeking.” There is a prevalent superstition that glory-seeking is a mean, unworthy business. Good people, and especially Christians, are supposed to be committed to service without thought of reward. We’re not in it for the glory; we only want to serve. God’s love is disinterested, and so is ours.
But that is very bad psychology, and even worse theology. It’s important to notice a difference between us and God. God has no need of glory, but we do; in fact it’s our most fundamental need. Our desire for glory, however stunted or distorted, however side-tracked into vanities, is at basis the desire for the vision of God, the knowledge of God as he is in himself. We desire to be “partakers of that glory”; “to perceive with open face the glory of the Lord, and to be transformed into the same image from glory to glory.” (2 Corinthians 3.18) As St. Augustine puts it, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
That is the desire of the whole creation, and the meaning of its motion. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, knew that the final cause moves all things as the end of their desire, and as St. Paul explains, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now awaiting its adoption,” (Romans 8.22-23) that is, its resurrection to glory. What is dumb longing in the lower creature is in rational beings the rational desire for the glory of God, informed and clarified by faith and hope and love.
We are surely glory-seekers, and we must know how to do it. We have lots of devices for achieving vain glories, though there may be some question whether the game is worth the candle. Insofar as real glory is concerned, we hardly know how to go about it. “Sit down in the lowest seat,” says Jesus. The point is that the glory of God is not something we can put together, or seize for ourselves. We have only the desire; the glory must be given. The lowest seat is the position of humility — the humility of accepting what we cannot achieve. That is to say, the beginning of glory in us must be the free gift of God’s grace. “Friend, go up higher.”
This gift of grace in us is the seed of future glory. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, in his incomparably clear way: “Grace has five effects in us: First, our soul is healed; second, we will the good; third, we work effectively for it; fourth, we persevere; fifth, we break through to glory.”
Our part is the thankful acceptance of God’s grace, in word and sacrament, and in a thousand occasions of grace which surround us every day: in our work and leisure, in our associations with one another, in our troubles, and even in our sins. Through the manifold workings of his grace, “may the Lord of eternal glory make us partakers of his heavenly table.” “Then shalt thou have glory in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.”
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne