“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
“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
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
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.”