Editor’s note: Throughout the month of May we will explore hard/weird/confusing/hilarious passages or verses in the Bible and try to make sense of them (or try to model how you make sense of them) to better understand God and the stories contained in scripture.
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. [James 1:9-10]
I was always a contrary kid and especially when I was talking about what the Bible seems to teach about success and wealth. This whole “last shall be first & first shall be last” business didn’t jive with what I saw (naturally) and always made me ask: “WELL. If the last are first, and the first are last, isn’t it better to be first, because then you’re last and even more blessed?”
And then James seems to agree with little smart-assed Greg: here he is saying that the rich man should boast in his humiliation. Being lower (because of wealth) is something that ought to be celebrated, just like being exalted (because of poverty) should be a reason for us to boast. Needless to say, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. We either glorify success or feel ashamed of it, but this paradoxical glorying in shame isn’t something we do naturally.
Personally, I fit pretty neatly into the category of the rich brother here: in terms of privilege and economic stability, I’m comfortable and have never really been otherwise. I’ve been broke plenty of times but even those days are behind me, for now, and I’ve always been a white guy with all of the structural power that entails. And I think this extends to others too: everyone is in a position of power in relation to someone. I think James is trying to tell me (and all of us) three things here:
First, James doesn’t leave room for ritual self-deprecation because of our benefits. Maybe this is just the well-meaning white progressive circles I run in but I often hear a lot of self-critique because of wealth or privilege. Rather than doing this, James tells us to ‘boast’ in them. This doesn’t look like the boasting we expect because of power and success, but it is a boasting because of humiliation. We need to recognize that power gives us serious spiritual challenges and glory in overcoming them.
Second, James suggests that this overcoming comes through a deliberate self-humiliation. God is going to humiliate the privileged anyway but we are urged to take a lower place before being forced to (the Luke 14 principle). This looks like deliberately sacrificing wealth or deliberately stepping away from positions of authority. Downward mobility and simple living can be buzzwords but they should still be principles we live by. Self-sacrifice shouldn’t stop us from pushing to change bad systems but at a minimum the Christian life ought to be lived in imitation of Christ’s humiliation.
Third, we should remember that we are going to die. Remember, James tells us, regardless of who we are and what position we hold that it will all end. We’re fragile, rich or poor, and we all face the same end – all boasting comes to an end when God judges. Like a wild flower, no matter how showy our lives, we are only here briefly.
James does a little twisted thinking here: both twisted in terms of how the world works and in terms of how I usually think of the Kingdom of God. This twisted thinking gives us some pragmatic ways to live on the scary side, the powerful side, of the Magnificat: “He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent empty away.”