March 30, 2008

Favoritism: James 2:1-9

Do you ever watch the Academy Awards? I admit I am not a fan of almost anyone from Hollywood. Maybe I am too judgmental. I watch the correspondents from the various networks “ooh”ing and “ah”ing about the stars parading one-by-one down the red carpet. The correspondents vie for a word or two from them, and all the while I am thinking, “Why don’t you get a life instead of idolizing these rich and arrogant druggies?”

Like I said, maybe I’m too judgmental, but when I see the stars walking by and tend to remember things I’ve read in newspapers and watched on news broadcasts about them, such as, he’s the one who is anti-Semitic, or that one is walking with her 4th husband (or is it the 5th?), or the last picture I saw of him was a mug shot.

Well, I guess I need to work on my attitude, but the fact is we live in a culture that pays a whole lot of attention to wealth and celebrity. A lot of people like to have pictures taken of themselves with famous people. I read last year that during the 2004 presidential campaign, the fee was $4,000 to stand next to President Bush at a fund-raising event to have your picture taken. Late last year, as the current presidential campaign was heating up, the price had risen to a reported $10,000 for a picture with Sen. Clinton at a fund-raising party in California.

In our culture—in fact, in almost every culture—wealth and position matter. It’s true even in small communities. For example, do you ever have to wait in your doctor’s waiting room? One wealthy man I know of never has to wait. The office staff always takes him in immediately, even when the waiting room is full, because that’s how he insists he be treated, and he is wealthy.

I’ll never forget Ted Turner’s quip a few years ago. He said “Christianity is for losers.” The irony of that statement is that he is right in a way. Christianity is for losers. Without Christ we were all losers in eternity. We were lost, every one of us. The difference is that Christians recognize that we once were all losers in eternity but Christ alone makes us winners. It is this realization that must govern the way we treat other people.

People are all equal in the eyes of God: equally in need of salvation, equally undeserving of the grace He offers to everyone, and equally standing before Him once we accept His grace and become His child.

This is something especially the earliest Christians needed to hear. They came from a socially stratified society dominated by the rich and powerful, even more so than our western culture is today. But in the church, even in its earliest days when James wrote his letter, people needed to be reminded that there is no favoritism in God.

The example James uses in chapter 2:1-9 involved the meeting together of the local church and how people are to be treated. In the passage, he makes five points:

There is no room for favoritism among Christians (1-2)

Verses 1 and 2 caution us not to judge people by qualities such as appearance, achievement, or family background. His example is that of two people entering the local church meeting, one in fine clothes and the other in poor, dirty clothes. One man appeared to have achieved nothing, and the other was obviously wealthy. There also was a cultural bias involved, because in first-century Middle Eastern culture a poor person did not have the opportunity to start a business and become rich. He was from a poor family, he would always have that stigma, and he would always be poor and common. Wealth, businesses, position, and standing in the community were all inherited. A comparatively few people came from wealthy families and had all the power and position. They were the ones always walking down the red carpet, expecting accolades, parading their status. The majority were what we would call blue-collar working families.

The point is, none of these means anything to God. Nor should they make a difference to us. We are not God’s children because of our looks, what we do, the color of our skin or place of birth, or how much money we have. We are His people because of His grace and mercy.

Showing favoritism is ungodly (vv.3-4)

Showing partiality is just not compatible with the heart of God. We read in Romans 2:11 that every human being will stand in judgment before God. And attributes such as personal beauty, achievements, and ancestry will not matter at all. What matters is whether or not you are one of His children. He will judge everyone by that standard. Writing about the day of God’s righteous judgment, Paul points this out in Romans 2:11: “For there is no partiality with God.” He makes a similar point in Ephesians 6, exhorting masters and servants to treat each other fairly and advising masters to “give up threatening (the servants), knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9).

In His time on earth, Jesus played no favorites. He ignored status symbols. He chastened the most powerful—the scribes and Pharisees—and He welcomed beggars and paupers. He ignored social divisions by touching Nicodemus and a Samaritan woman.

The lowest to the highest people in our eyes are all equal in God’s sight.

As Christians, we are expected to see others the same way God sees them: equal in His sight. Paul explains in Colossians 3:10-11 that we have “put on a the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, servant and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”

Note in verse 4 that James makes a pretty profound statement: when we show favoritism to others (because of their appearance, wealth, etc.), it is not with godly motives, but with evil motives. Often, we are kind of jealous and just wish for what they have or are interested in what they can do for us or how we might profit from being associated with them. In the immediate context of James’ letter, perhaps he knew those early Christians were showing partiality because the wealthier Christians might be motivated to put more in the offering to the church or perhaps elevate the status of Christianity in the community because of their association with it. So they were deferred to. The poorer Christians could be ignored because they didn’t have much to offer. That can be true today, too. God wanted them—and He wants us—to remember we were all equally lost, and now we are equally His children.

Showing favoritism is unreasonable (5-7)

Remember how the social structure of 1st century Israel worked. To be from a wealthy family meant you had it easy. Then, as it is today, even the wealthy and powerful were not satisfied; they wanted more and more. The social practices were always in their favor. When they wanted the smaller parcel of land owned by a poorer neighbor, they could find a means to get it through corrupt judges. It was a system of justice not of laws, but of men.

In addition, in the history of the Israelites, giving to support the poor had become not an act of mercy, but one of pride. The wealthier people made sure their gifts were given in public, and giving alms sometimes was kind of a competition. James is telling them to think about what they do when they show favoritism to the wealthy. It is the wealthy who have historically treated the common people with disrespect and have oppressed them and taken them to court, so it didn’t even make sense to treat them with favoritism because of this history. And it did not make sense for another reason, too: God does not show favoritism. In fact, while the world chose to honor the rich and powerful, God chose to honor even the poor of this world to be rich in faith.

Favoritism is unloving (v.8)

When the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, they asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). Jesus answered (Matthew 22:37-40): “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, You shall you’re your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.'"

In other words, Jesus is saying that if God’s people had shown this kind of love, they wouldn’t need any other guidelines about how to behave toward others. Paul put it even more succinctly: “All the law is summed up in one sentence, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).

James, in verse 8, calls this the “royal” (“supreme”) law: to love your neighbor as yourself. That means loving impartially, completely, without regard to our brother’s or sister’s race, national origin, economic circumstances, or whether he or she sits in the highest office or cleans it.


Roger D. Curry said...

Good evening - For some reason, something is stuck in my mind, and I don't know where it comes from -- when asked what the problem was with Christianity, someone smarter than me replied, "Who knows? Nobody's really tried it yet." Maybe that means tried successfully, I'm not sure. I'm not even sure what "success" at it would look like.

A simpler faith would be easier - Christ requires you to think - at least that's what I've concluded so far.


Pastor Joel said...

Bro R:

Actually, that is an astute observation. I'm not sure that "nobody's really tried it yet" is literally accurate, but it may be close. Over the centuries, the church became an institution (both Catholics and Protestants). Yet what we see in the pages of the New Testament are assemblies of people ("church" means "assembly") who had in common their profession of faith.

Jesus' teachings were aimed at depth of faith and trust in Him, rather than what "the church" seems to focus on today--growth in numbers, innovative staging of worship services, market research and marketing methods, ever-larger buildings, etc. Not that any of these is inherently wrong, but growth and success were not Jesus' objectives. His objectives focused on ever-deepening personal faith and trust on the part of people who had decided to follow Him, and it was very important to Him that they lived in a way that demonstrated they were truly following Him (i.e., honest, merciful, faithful, not self-centered, love for others, etc.). The epistles (Paul, James, Peter, John, etc.) follow the same theme--the journey toward personal holiness, not numbers and budgets, buildings, etc.

Interestingly, especially in Paul's epistles, those passages that deal with the institutional church seem mostly to deal with solving problems among the members and admonishing them about tolerating sin in their midst.

Anyway, keep mulling things over. It's not complicated but it definitely involves steps of faith.

Bro Joel

Crazyfox said...

Hey, I appreciate your blog...It was good seeing you the other day. Eventually we will be visiting your church

Looking Up,
Dave Mitchell