My wife and I had not been to Canada’s Wonderland in fifteen years. We decided to go now that the boys are old enough, and while I still feel young enough, to appreciate roller coasters. Some things have not changed in fifteen years. Like the fact the old-style wooden roller coasters are still the most frightening. I think the colour has finally returned to my knuckles. But some things have changed. Like the fact there are now two line-ups at each ride. We always stood in the first line up. And having stood we shuffled along and continued standing and stood some more and shuffled along some more in that same line up. The people in the second line-up did not stand long enough to do any shuffling for they were ushered onto the rides pronto. How did these people get to ride so quickly? What made the difference in wait times? Money. If you were willing to pay extra, you could buy a card that got you past the line-ups. Standing and shuffling along as we were I had plenty of time to think upon my upcoming sermon from James chapter 2.
1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. 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 dishonoured the poor. (James 2:1-6a)
I must admit to being a wee bit annoyed at experiencing a system that favours the rich. But then, we could afford to be there in the first place whereas many Canadians cannot. Canada’s Wonderland is not a wonderland for all Canadians. But then again there are many beyond Canada’s shores who would give anything and are in fact risking everything to get to Canada. All of Canada is a wonderland for many poor souls in our world. How rich we are! And how life and society sometimes seems to favour the rich. James knew this was normal in the society of his day, and yet it was not to be normal in the Church. In Christ there is to be a new normal where the old norms of favouring the rich and powerful to the poor and easily-forgettable are to be replaced by impartial love. There are some things to notice here in James chapter two:
If you are a follower of Jesus you will not cater to the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor. I like how the NRSV translation of verse one puts it as a rather pointed question: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1 emphasis mine) In other words, by showing favouritism you are calling into doubt your knowledge of Christ. Verses fourteen and following revisit this idea of your life in the world being evidence of your life in Christ: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14) James is calling upon us to back up our claims to be Christ followers with true Christian community which does not favour the rich and powerful.
God sets the example of not catering to the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor. God does not cater to the rich and powerful: “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. 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?” (James 2:5) The Old Testament points to God’s impartial love in His choice of Israel to be His covenant people through whom He would launch His plan of redemption for the world. He could have chosen a rich people, a numerous people, a powerful people. Instead he chose slaves. Likewise God could have chosen the rich and powerful to be central to His revelation of Himself through Jesus. Instead Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary. Shepherds were invited to that scene, not the rich and powerful. And Jesus does not cater to the rich and powerful, but to anyone who needed His healing touch. Salvation is offered to all.
We are lawbreaking sinners when cater to the rich and powerful:
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:8-9)
Some might say “yes, but it is not that great a sin, and everyone is doing it.” James therefore lets us know that to commit any sin is a serious thing:
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:10-13)
We might be tempted to think we are really good Christian people because we are not guilty of some of the “biggie” sins like murder or adultery. But even a subtle attitude change between the rich and the poor shows that we have some ways to go in Christian maturity.
- We want to watch our attitudes toward the rich and poor. We may be playing favourites without really being aware that we are. So we should give some time to reflecting whether this may be a sin in our lives or in the life of our church family. Love requires thought in addition to thoughtfulness.
- Having clout in the community does not mean that one should have clout in the Church. Influence in the world may be evidence of great leadership skills, but that in itself is not evidence of Christian maturity required for Christian leadership. I wonder how often we pass by God’s influence on one in favouring the influence of an uninfluenced other.
- We may let the Lord’s Table remind us that, as one person put it: “the foot of the cross is level ground.” Whether rich or poor we share in communion together. We are reminded in the open invitation that God shows no partiality. Additionally, some might think we are being lazy by passing the elements around rather than getting up and going to the front. This is actually symbolic for us in that we serve each other. As the bread and cups are being distributed people are serving one another without making distinctions. The rich serve the poor, the poor serve the rich.
- God has blessings in store for the poor:
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. (Luke 6:20-21)
- In storing up blessing for the poor God is not playing favourites, for we are all poor and in need of His grace and mercy:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV
photo credit: Money! via photopin (license)
One thought on “Playing Favourites in the Church. A Reflection on James 2:1-17”