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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by guest preacher Mike Fargo

Copyright © 2009 by Valley Covenant Church

James 2:1-13
September 6, 2009

As always, it is a great honor to be here.  Last week Pastor Steve chose to follow the common lectionary in a series on the Epistle of James.  For the next two weeks I will follow the lectionary as it takes us into chapters two and three.  My hope is that on your own you will pick up this epistle and allow it get inside your mind and heart.  James can be very challenging at precisely those places where we most need a word from God.

The reason for this is that he is determined that our faith in Christ should shape how we actually live our lives.  To call myself a Christian—that is, a follower of Christ—is to deliberately and self-consciously seek to live as Jesus did.  This is much easier to do when we limit our focus to very broad terms like faith or love—words that can be very elastic.  However, James is determined to not let this happen, but to get very specific about certain behaviors that fundamentally contradict what it means to be a Christian.  In today’s text he takes up one such issue, beginning with the first verse of chapter two:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 

Now this is something we all instinctively hate.  Indeed, it runs contrary to our cultural fabric, since America (in theory, at least) prides itself on being an egalitarian, classless society where the laborer and the rich man, male and female, black and white, are all equally valued.  However, if ever theory and practice ever part company, it is here.  We have our own way of gauging the value of someone in order to classify and pigeon-hole them.  You only have to read our newspapers or watch TV for about fifteen minutes before you discover what we really value—youth, beauty, sexuality, athleticism, wealth, fame, and brash individualism.  These are the things we admire.  Other things—like experience, humility, wisdom, age, or tradition—don’t even factor in. 

And so it would seem that in practice our theoretical American love of equality is simply that—theoretical.  And that is why when we talk about values, we should always begin with specific, observable behavior.  And that is where James quickly goes in verse 2:

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?

Now notice here that James does not say, “If a rich man walks into your church, followed by a poor man…”  No, he only says, “If a man walks in wearing fine clothes and expensive jewelry…”  In other words, we really don’t know anything about this first man other than the fact he looks wealthy.  He could be a ruthless industrialist, a scam artist, or just a flashy dresser, but the point is that he is suddenly valued differently by the mere fact that he appears rich.

So why was this happening? Well, there were plenty of excuses we could make for the early church.  It is clear from the New Testament epistles that the early church often suffered from great poverty, since many of the original converts were from the poorer classes.  Having a wealthy man suddenly appear at one of their meetings was probably a very big deal.  The early church also suffered constantly from misunderstanding and persecution, so having a member who was wealthy and influential could offer them protection.  But underlying all of this, of course, is the common human tendency to simply admire and value wealth.

You are all probably very familiar with the famous song from “Fiddler On the Roof” where Tevye, the poor milkman, sings “If I Were a Rich Man.”  Let me read from one of the verses that captures what I’m talking about:

The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
"If you please, Reb Tevye..."
"Pardon me, Reb Tevye..."
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!
And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you're rich, they think you really know!

Now I don’t want to be totally unsympathetic to this very common tendency to treat people differently, since the early church (like the church today) needed financial support and protection and to attract influential people.  But still, at its core, this is all very sick.  I have lived in a number of different cities in my life and attended a number of very different churches, but it has always seemed obvious to me that if a rich man should join the church, he is almost instantly invited to become a member of the board or the pastor’s inner circle.  Let a laborer or a factory worker join the church, and he is lucky if he’s even noticed.

But even here my analysis so far is actually quite superficial, for what makes showing partiality so “evil” (to use James’ own word) is something more profound and insidious, as he points out next, in verse 5:

Listen, my dear brothers: 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? 

James makes several crucial points here.  First, we forget that the only reason any of us believe in Christ in the first place is due to the sheer mercy and grace of God.  As Jesus himself put it, we did not choose him, but Christ chose us. And that goes for the poor as well as the rich.  We are always a bit amazed and impressed by God’s sovereignty when we see a rich person (who presumably already has everything) suddenly discovers that he is a desperate sinner just like the rest of us.  But let a poor man repent and we think, “Well, what did you expect?”  What we forget is that God has just as carefully, lovingly, sovereignly reached down and chosen this poor person who believes just the same way he did with the rich.  And the fact that God chooses so many poor people tells me he has a great love for them.

But that is not all.  Yes, the rich have hurdles to overcome in order to believe, just like other people.  Their wealth itself can insulate them from their real plight.  But the poor have even greater hurdles.  They are called upon to not only recognize their broken, sinful condition, but to also look beyond their very poverty and believe in a God who could easily make them rich materially if he wanted to, but who instead offers them Jesus.  This is what James means when he says God has chosen the poor to be “rich in faith” instead of rich with things.  It takes great faith to see beyond material wealth.  It is the poor who ought to amaze us by their faith.

But instead, when the rich and famous become believers we applaud them, and stroke them, and make celebrities out of them.  And James tells us in verse 6 that by behaving this way, what have we done?  He writes:

…you have insulted the poor. 

By treating people differently in the church, we dishonor those whom God has chosen.  We have set ourselves up as judges, and by our actions we have made it clear who is valued and who is not.  And I don’t care how we justify our actions, James rightly declares that all such actions have evil motives.

But there is also an irony to all this (just as there is irony to all sin).  He points this out in the second half of verse 6:

Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?  Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

It is a sad fact of history that wealth is regressive—the more you have the more you need and the harder you have to work to keep it.  James is not necessarily talking about rich Christians in this verse, but rather he is making a generalization about wealth in general—it causes even decent people to behave in ways that violate their better instincts.  For example, in our modern economic system, it is sometimes the companies that are blatantly ruthless that offer the greatest return on investment to their shareholders, and so the whole system fosters this very complicated, circular pattern of unwitting exploitation.   So James is essentially asking, “In light of all this, why do we so admire the wealthy over the poor?” 

But that kind of irony is not nearly as important as his next point.  By showing partiality of any kind (rich/poor, beautiful/ugly, smart/average, popular/unpopular), we violate the very core of God’s law, as we learn next in verse 8:

If you really keep the royal law found in scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 

By appealing to the golden rule James reminds us that if we show partiality, we are actually violating love itselfWe have failed at the very point that ought to distinguish the people of God.  But again, there is an irony in this, for in the end we ultimately hurt ourselves.  The minute we begin to make distinctions between people, guess what eventually happens?  We will eventually find ourselves on the B-list.  Someone, somewhere, will come up with a criteria that we don’t meet, and it will be our turn to feel like an outsider.  It may turn out that the current “insiders” attend a certain bible study group, or have kids who play a certain sport, or who belong to a particular health club, or an almost infinite number to silly, stupid, hurtful ways we try and distinguish ourselves from others.

And the reason we can tolerate this behavior, is that it is so easy to justify.  It so often seems relatively harmless, even when we know it’s wrong.  Which explains what James zeroes in on next:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.  For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.”  If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

What James is reminding us is that no sin is harmless, and that everything we do has a big impact whether we realize it or not.  To treat people differently is to exaggerate the value of the favored person and to denigrate the value of the other.  Remember how Jesus defined murder in the Sermon on the Mount?  He said that simply calling someone a fool in your heart can amount to murder, since you have effectively written that people off as unimportant.  You’ve denied them your love.

Now I want to make one last observation.  This whole discussion of showing partiality can easily become a kind of legalistic gamesmanship.  We can develop all kinds of mental games to determine when we are committing the sin of showing favoritism and when we are not.  If I invite couple A over for dinner but not couple B, am I showing partiality?  And if I give my vote to John for the church council and not Susie, have I shown a preference for males over females?  That is the whole problem of trying to live by rigid rules in the first place.  It can tie you in knots.

By referring to the “law that gives freedom,” James is appealing not to a rigid set of rules but asking that our conscience be shaped by Christ—to learn to see people as God sees them.  My word for you today is that we all need to cultivate a certain kind of blindness.  We need to see beyond the superficial to the essence of a man or woman.  This does not mean we look at people with rose colored glasses.  I actually mean the opposite.  The simple truth is that we still have to exercise a certain degree of judgment and discernment in this life.  We still need to elect the very best candidates to our councils and be discerning about the friends our children make, and so forth.

But this is the ideal.  Even this too often leads to just another kind of partiality—spiritual partiality.  And so James closes his discussion with some sound advice.  Don’t become obsessed with distinctions at all.  Rather, become blind to distinctions and focus on what matters, as we read in verse 12: 

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.

In the end, the cure for partiality is mercy.  Jesus once said that “He who has been forgiven much, loves much.”  To see people with the eyes of God requires that we first see ourselves objectively—to understand just how privileged we all are to even be here this morning, to share in the body and blood of Christ, to know the deep forgiveness of God for our own sins.  Only then do all the superficial distinctions melt away and we can love one another freely and equally.

I love that part of the Catholic liturgy, after the priest has consecrated the bread and wine, he offers it to the people, and the congregation responds with the words of the Centurion from Matthews gospel:

Lord, I am unworthy to receive you.  But speak the word, and I shall be healed. 

This is why we have all come here today—to receive a word from Jesus and to be healed.  May our Lord help us to see one another in his light.  Amen

Mike Fargo

© 2009 Valley Covenant Church

Last updated September 19, 2009