Inglorious glory

Here’s a little exercise in imagination: when, if ever, would you use the word “glorious”? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is a beautiful sunrise or sunset: the color, the play of light, the feeling of being dwarfed by something luminous and beautiful. But I’ve heard people use the word to describe other things that provoked a sensation near awe, including that first bite of something transcendently delicious.

In a biblical context, the word “glory” is typically associated with God. Like the word “holy,” it’s a hard word to pin down with exactness, because human language can’t fully contain that which is too majestic or ineffable for words. We can point in God’s direction; we can try as best we can to describe what we see, what we think we know. But in the end, God bursts the bounds of all our descriptions.

Imagine what it was like for the ancient Israelites to encounter the God who brought plagues upon their powerful Egyptian captors so that they would be released, then parted the sea before them when the Egyptians gave chase. Imagine being led through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day, and a glowing pillar of fire by night. Imagine camping at the foot of Mount Sinai as God made the mountain tremble. What language would you use to describe that God?

Glory.

The word has a variety of meanings: magnificence and luminous splendor on the one hand, but also weight and substance on the other. When we speak of the glory of God, we mean all these things and more.

But would we describe a beaten and battered body as “glorious”? A body hung naked and bloody on a cross in front of jeering spectators? No? Then in what sense is Jesus the Lord of glory?

. . .

James, as we’ve seen, asks believers to examine themselves. Are they living in the world, but in such a way that they’re not captive to its values? Are they showing compassion to those who live on the margins of society? At the beginning of the second chapter of his letter, he asks a related and even more pointed question: “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1, NRSV). He goes on to give an example of the misbehavior he’s observed:

Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? (James 2:2-5, CEB)

The situation is simple enough to picture. Then as now, it was often easy to tell the rich from the poor by the way they dressed, particularly the very rich and the very poor. Roman society, in general, didn’t have a middle class; there was a very small minority of people who held the wealth and resources, while everyone else (including an enormous population of slaves) would have been considered poor.

James’ description sounds like the beginning of a joke: So, a rich person and a poor person walk into a church… But there’s nothing funny about what happens next. The rich person is fawned over and given preferential seating; the poor person is told to stand, or sit on the floor. I imagine a pastor then getting up in the pulpit, all smiles, saying, “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here!”

To James, that would be the joke.

Believers who show this kind of status-based favoritism, he says, have become “evil-minded judges.” By this, he doesn’t mean the “hanging judges” of classic Westerns. He’s referring to the way we size up people: we make automatic judgments about who is due our respect and courtesy.

This is “evil-minded” in two ways. First, as James will insist even more strongly later in the letter, such behavior stems from our own evil desire. We’re not just following social custom; we’re making distinctions that are driven by the wish to enhance our own status. And second, in doing so, we are demonstrating that we have yet to see people as God does.

There’s nothing glorious about it.

. . .

Whether we care to admit it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, we often seek our own glory. That’s ironic, James seems to say, given that Jesus, the Lord of Glory, the one in whom we say we believe, had very different ideas and behaved accordingly. Yes, his miraculous resurrection was “glorious” in the way we would normally use the word. Yes, he will come again in “glory,” in undeniable power and majesty.

But such manifestations of the glory of God cannot be separated from the life he lived in public view. He ate with tax-gatherers and those considered “sinners,” and seemed to enjoy their company. He did compassionate acts of healing to those whom the religious establishment refused to touch. He subjected himself to the brutal and humiliating treatment of a criminal.

This, too, is the glory of God, a counterintuitive, inglorious glory. James seems to ask, Do you believe that God is really like this? Because if we do, it should change the way we see and treat other people.

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