Wednesdays with James
Lesson Nine: Are you not discriminating among yourselves?
We enter the central section of the Epistle of James today. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail in reverse order.
James begins with matters related to relations between the rich and the poor in chapter 2.
My brothers and sisters, as you practice the faith of our Lord Jesus, the anointed king of glory, you must do so without favoritism. What I mean is this: if someone comes into your assembly wearing gold rings, all dressed up, and a poor person comes in wearing shabby clothes, you cast your eyes over the person wearing fine clothes and say, “Please! Have a seat up here!” but then you turn to the poor person and say, “Stand there!” or, “Get down there by my footstool!” When you do this, are you not discriminating among yourselves? Are you not turning into judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters. Isn’t it the case that God has chosen the poor (as the world sees it) to be rich in faith, and to inherit the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. After all, who are the rich? The rich are the ones who lord it over you and drag you into court, aren’t they? The rich are the ones who blaspheme the wonderful name which has been pronounced over you, aren’t they? Supposing, however, you keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. But if you show favoritism, you are committing sin, and you will be convicted by the law as a lawbreaker. Anyone who keeps the whole law, you see, but fails in one point, has become guilty of all of it. For the one who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” So if you do not commit adultery, but do murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act in such a way as people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom. Judgment is without mercy, you see, for those who have shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
• James 2:1-13, KNT
Why does James bring up the subject of favoritism here?
It seems that the recipients of this letter were primarily poor Jewish-Christian believers scattered in communities throughout Palestine and perhaps beyond. There were also, it appears, at least a few well to do members of the congregation, as well as other wealthy landowners in the region. However, most of them were relatively impoverished, working for powerful employers who were taking advantage of them in various ways.
Imagine yourself in that situation and think about what it must have been like to be in a position of virtual servitude, treated as inferior and expendable. Then one day, a prominent landowner deigns to attend your assembly. On the one hand, you probably resent his presence, but on the other hand you see an opportunity. Perhaps if you treat him with special courtesy and honor, it will make life easier for you. Maybe he will remember you the next time he is looking for help, or at least might think twice before punishing you. Some preferential treatment might be a wise move and relieve a little of the daily stress.
So, when he comes into the assembly you spot your chance. You take him by the arm and escort him to the best seat. Another visitor, a poor worker, is sitting there already, dressed shabbily, looking like the lower class person he is. You shoo him out of the seat and point to the back, directing him to the standing section or to the lower floor seats. You brush off the dust he left on the good seat and put on your best manners as you welcome the rich man and make yourself available should he have other needs during the service.
In his commentary, Peter Davids suggests this text might reflect an even more tempting situation. He thinks that James is describing, not a worship gathering, but a judicial assembly, a “church court” in which impartial verdicts for people with community complaints would be rendered. The “judgment” language pervasive throughout this passage seems to support a meeting in which decisions are made. If this is the context, the community is pandering to the rich and making unjust decisions in their favor, at the expense of their poor brethren.
The point is, James doesn’t just bring up the subject of favoritism out of thin air. Something like one of these scenarios must have been taking place in the congregations of exiles he was addressing. And he finds it unacceptable for people of faith to act this way.
- Jesus did not discriminate between people based on human class standards. That’s what you just did.
- Jesus pronounced blessings upon the poor. You have dishonored the poor person.
- In fact, Jesus made it a point to prefer the poor, not because they are better or more important, but to make it clear that God loves even those we consider unworthy. However, your actions suggest that rich people are more important and that “the way the world works” is the standard Christians should follow.
- Jesus was never afraid to point out the oppressive sins of the rich and powerful. But you have conveniently forgotten them, hoping that your favoritism will win them over and bring you favors.
- Jesus taught you simply to love your neighbor as yourself, remembering that you are loved by God. Your actions show that you don’t get that. You have acted in a judgmental way toward the poor man and have shown unwarranted deference to the rich. This is not what God’s word teaches us. You have failed to follow your Father’s instructions (law, or torah).
In my experience, which has mostly been in small town and suburban congregations, this is one of the great unspoken sins of American Christianity.
Some groups (the Assemblies of God come to mind, as well as many inner city missions and congregations) understand the power of this teaching and seek to level the playing field between people of different socio-economic contexts.
But the suburban churches with which I’m familiar don’t even recognize that there’s a problem here.
I’ve heard people who have attended a church for awhile complain to the pastor that they cannot become members because too many in the congregation come from the “other side of the tracks” and it makes them feel uncomfortable so they’re leaving.
I have watched parents pull their children from youth groups because the youth pastor was including unchurched teens from less desirable neighborhoods.
I have seen church people resist getting involved with unwed mothers and needy families from local ministries like pregnancy centers and shelters. They are happy to have the parachurch ministry care for them at their facility, but they resist having them become part of the congregation in any significant way.
I have witnessed congregations who are willing to take in a “token” poor family and minister to them. This makes them feel good, as long as they remain the “givers” and the poor can be their “project.” But they never seem to accept them as equals.
And we haven’t even begun to talk about racial, ethnic, language, or lifestyle differences and how middle and upper-middle class American Christians struggle with accepting true diversity and equality in the church.
Almost every day now, as a hospice chaplain I walk into neighborhoods and homes that I know most of the congregants with whom I’ve rubbed shoulders would recoil from. Frankly, sometimes I do too. So conditioned am I by the comfortable station of life with which I’ve been blessed that I must regularly ask God for the grace to love my neighbor as myself, without a hint of partiality or prejudice.
As Peter Davids says in his summary of this text:
James clearly believes that the poor have a very important place in the church because of the leveling effect of the Christian gospel. True faith has no place for the social distinctions of the world. In fact, if a Christian [church] should so much as consider these distinctions, it becomes by that act evil and sides with the wealthy who persecute Christians.
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Photo by Don O’Brien at Flickr. Creative Commons License
Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)