This past Wednesday I was driving two of my grandsons, Charlie and Lincoln, to my house for the evening. As I was driving, Lincoln, the younger at age 7, asked Charlie, who is 10, if he was Charlie’s favorite brother. My ears perked up – this is going to be good. Charlie pondered the questions and told Lincoln no; he was not his favorite brother. Lincoln asked who his favorite was. Now, this is getting really interesting because there is only one other brother left to pick from, and that is 21-year-old Jakob. Charlie tells Lincoln that Jakob is his favorite. Lincoln was huffy and asked why. Charlie responded that he knew Jakob longer than he knew Lincoln, which was completely true but lost on younger Lincoln. Plus, Charlie added, you argue with me too much. Then they sat in silence, and I could see that Lincoln was hurt but not willing to carry it any further. This, I believe, is some of what James is feeling and seeing in the church as he wrote this portion of the Book of James.
Scripture: James 2:1-10
2 My brothers and sisters,[a] do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?[b] 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”[c] 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[a] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
When I was growing up, I remember reading that some scientist had determined that the human body is worth very little because once you removed the water all you would have left is a few bucks worth of ordinary chemicals and minerals. It was one of those throw away comments that one of my high school teachers made that stuck with me. Personally, I was insulted. You mean that this spectacular example of manhood is only worth a cup of coffee and a glazed donut at Dunkin’? I found that offensive.
Recently, I learned about another scientist who weighed in about what our bodies are actually worth. Professor David Sadoof of the University of Washington determined that our bodies are worth much more than pocket change. He said that the typical 150-pound human body has 10,200 units of the clotting agent pro-throm-bin which would sell on the open market for $30,600. He also says that our bodies contain 40 grams of my-o-blo-bin, another blood component which would bring an excess of $100,000. So, these two blood compounds alone would make each of us worth at least $130,600-a great improvement over a few measly bucks worth of chemicals!
While science is assessing what our physical bodies may be worth by assessing value, James is wondering the same thing about our treatment of each other is social, religious and interpersonal ways. How do we value or size up what each of us is worth in God’s Dominion? We shall examine this in a moment.
Let’s acknowledge that we constantly assess the value of the people around us based on criteria that may be meaningless and superficial.
Years ago, as a new non-ordained youth pastor in Ravenna, the senior pastor and I traveled to Martha’s Vineyard for a retreat. It was a men’s retreat, and I was excited, but also pretty intimidated. This was my first gathering as a recognized clergyperson.
At the opening gathering, a young man about my age and I really hit it off. I’ll call him Thomas. Thomas and I talked youth ministry, family, music and hobbies and as we moved from the pre-dinner gab fest into dinner, we began looking for spaces at the tables where we could continue to share our time and conversation.
Just as we entered the dining room, Thomas asked me, “So, Mark. Where did you seminary?” I tell you; it was the dreaded questions that I wanted to avoid.
“I just began college (and at this time I was perhaps 25 or 26) and have a way to go before seminary.”
“Oh”, Thomas responded, his face darkening. “Sound like a good plan.” And with that he excused himself and went to sit at a table that had a single chair left, leaving me feeling shame, anger and inadequacy. I was profoundly embarrassed, and I went to a table as far from Thomas and I could get. He avoided me the rest of the 4-day retreat.
I see the same thing all the time when men get together who don’t know each other well. To provide contrast to men, it is likely that a gathering of women, in which the women are being introduced to each other, the opening, early conversations will be along the lines of, “Are you married.” Do you have kids?” “Are you in a relationship?” Of interest to me, these questions, which admittedly may be off the mark for some of the women being asked, are relationship questions. The conversation is not necessarily judgmental or ranking, but more inquiry as to status with others. I have watched the responses of women and it seems to me, upon observation, that the responses are accepted, even if they are far from the question.
For example, I have seen women respond with yes, married. Yes, two little boys, yes, I have a partner who was not able to be her tonight. Or they may respond with I am committed to my job at this point, or, I am entering grad school or beginning a Ph.d, or it is my first year of teaching, or maybe starting a new business, so I am not looking for relationships beyond my incredible friends.
Back to the boys. I have seen it a thousand times if I have seen it once. After the introductions of names, one or the other will ask, “What do you do?” Which is a form of “Where did you seminary?” Incidentally, who asked a question like Where did you seminary? Anyway, “What do you do?” And the response will often draw a reaction based on the coolness of the job or how far up the ladder that job has taken the man.
I have often been asked when I would be “grown up” enough to become a “real minister” and leave youth ministry. But over the years I realized that being a youth pastor was just about the highest honor I could ever achieve in ministry. I have regularly been offered pastorates all over the country during my ministry. I even turned down Hawaii – and for that I think I owe my wife an apology.
As we get into what James is writing, it is important to make some definition distinctions. The word here that is referred to as "favoritism" comes from an old Hebrew idiom which literally meant “to lift up the face on a person.” Originally it was a positive expression which meant simply to look on a person with favor and value. But eventually it developed the negative connotation of showing favoritism to a person because of his social status, prestige, power, or wealth. I did not add “her” because women who had status or wealth were extremely rare. It was entirely a male dominated society. And that is exactly what was happening in many Christian churches in James’ day.
There are three other English words that describe this behavior of favoritism. The first is bias which is the "tendency or outlook of personal or unreasoned judgment. For example, one common bias is that women are weak, and blacks are dishonest.
The second is discrimination, "the act or practice of discriminating categorically rather than individually.” Common types of discrimination are age, disability, gender identity, marriage or civil partnership, race, religion or belief and sexuality.
The third is prejudice, from the words "pre" + "judge.” This is a preconceived judgment or opinion without just grounds of sufficient knowledge. An example of prejudice is having a negative attitude toward people who are not born in the United States, in spite of the fact that all people, other than Native Americans, were not from families born in the United States at some point. We are all immigrants. All thee of these words develop distance between people.
When I consider these definitions, I think about some of my own knee-jerk reactions as I was younger to the homeless, the displaced, the different, and other groups. James has a name for such exclusive attitudes and calls it what it is: sin.
James, as the leader of the Jerusalem church, had probably seen it in the gatherings of that great Mother Church. A rich person enters, and all the elders are kowtowing to him, falling over themselves to honor him with attention, with flattery, with the best seat in the house. Perhaps he'll become a regular part of the church and be able to give big offerings.
Then a poor man enters on a day when all the seats are filled. His clothing needs mending and he hasn't taken a bath for a while. Stand there, we tell him. There are some seats on the floor at the front, that's all we can offer, we tell him, hoping that he'll find somewhere else to go to church. Too many poor people and we'll be thought of as a poor-person's church. It will reflect on us. And they'll expect us to give them things.
In the early 1970s, Jim Wallis and some friends from seminary founded an organization that came to be known as Sojourners. These seminary students wanted to explore how their faith intersected with social and political issues of the day. They identified themselves as “a committed group of Christians who work together to live a gospel life that integrates spiritual renewal and social justice.” In the book, God’s Politics, Wallis describes the beginnings of Sojourners. Here is a quote:
“In his first year in seminary, Jim Wallis and friends did a thorough study to find every verse in the Bible that deals with the poor and social injustice. They came up with thousands, in the first three Gospels one out of ten verses, in Luke one out of seven! They could not recall a single sermon on the poor in their home churches. One of them found an old Bible and began to cut out every single biblical text about the poor. Much of the Psalms and prophets disappeared. That old Bible would hardly hold together. They had created a Bible full of holes.”
Now back to James watching this exclusive behavior at a worship service. James says that this usher was showing prejudicial favoritism because he had determined in his own mind that the rich man was worth more than the poor man and so he deserved better treatment.
Understand, it must have been uncomfortable for the usher. He was no doubt poor himself and had been raised in a culture where poor people had little or no social contact with the rich. And this must have caused similar problems in all the churches initially. Think about it, a man who owned slaves might become a Christian and then come to a church where one of his slaves was the pastor. Imagine what that must have been like!
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” It sounds as if James is challenging the sincerity of our faith in Jesus! Can you really call yourselves Christians if you show favoritism to one person and disdain to another?
God cares about the poor. God has always cared about the poor. And there is something in this passage from James that we might not fully understand, reading from the perspective of our 21st century middle class comfort. The people to whom James was writing were most likely poor themselves.
James’ warning is as relevant to us as it to his first century audience. Instead of following the world’s value system, a system that often makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, James reminds us of the ‘royal law’ that goes back to Leviticus. Love your neighbor as yourself.
This is the central idea of Jesus’ teaching. Love God first and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two primary rules for life (Matthew 22:40). To love our neighbors, we have to spend time with them, get to know them, live in close proximity to them.
So, we are careful to practice a kind of humility that isn’t actually humble at all. J. D. Walt writes, “According to Scripture, the opposite of humility is not pride but selfishness. And therein lies the problem with our definitions. They are all self-referential. We can’t even talk about humility without somehow referencing the self. Here’s what I’m slowly learning. Humility is not about self at all. Humility is all about others. Humility is not putting yourself down. That’s false humility. Humility is about lifting others up.”
You have also been the object of discrimination. Perhaps it was for how you looked -- your height, your weight, your complexion, your hair. Perhaps you've experienced discrimination based on your intelligence, your race, your religion, your gender, your sexuality or politics. Your family's social standing in the community has been a factor, either negative or positive, on how you were viewed by the elite. How did it make you feel?
You may be bearing the scars of those encounters to this very day. It is this huge -- and is the central issue that James tackles in these passages.
James' congregation struggled with poverty. Once during a famine, Paul had to raise an offering to help the poor in Jerusalem. James is careful to help the poor to value themselves as God values them. He writes, "The brother (or sister) in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position." (1:9)
"Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?" (2:5)
These are hard words. But so much of the time we ourselves see with worldly, materialistic eyes. And this blindness to eternal things feeds our partiality and prejudice. We must take off our blinders and see with new eyes, God's eyes.
James is having an imaginary conversation in this passage with a debating opponent. It is a theological discussion about a matter of great significance— the nature of true, saving faith. The word “faith” appears 16 times in this letter, 11 of which are in this passage. In eight of those eleven times, “faith” is used in a negative sense. It is a dead or counterfeit faith. James’ imaginary debating opponent is defending the position that saving faith is merely believing the right things, embracing theological orthodoxy. James disagrees and says that such faith is dead.
Real faith, on the other hand, is made evident by its fruit of good works. James may be engaging an imaginary opponent in this debate, but the sad truth is that both in James’ time and our own there are many who believe exactly as did James’ debating opponent, with deadly consequences.
Years ago, I remember reading a cartoon portraying a marketing sign for a church. “The Lite Church. 24% fewer commitments, home of the 7.5% tithe, 15-minute sermons, 45-minute worship services. We have only 8 commandments—your choice. Everything you’ve wanted in a church…and less!”
You may remember Rachel Held Evans, the American Christian columnist, blogger, and author. She died very young a couple of years ago. She wrote, “The apostles remembered what many modern Christians tend to forget—that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out - but who it lets in.”
My mother used to quote Billy Graham in a similar line of thinking, “God calls us to love others, not to judge them.”
Both women had concerns of favoritism among Christian believers. These are important things to consider as we move forward into our new church programming year and every year beyond. Favoritism and how we treat God’s people is a concern for us, and we all know this.
Overheard at a party, “My wife accuses me of favoritism over my children, which is not true. I love both of my boys - Matthew and, ah, let’s see, right - Not-Matthew equally.”