Comments and Observations
In this age of growing income inequality, when the gap between the 1% and the 99% seems to widen daily, these words of James 2 are a hot button text. We’ll have to be careful how we push the button. If we blunt the message of this text because we don’t want to offend our affluent parishioners, we will silence the prophetic word of God about the poor. If, on the other hand, we wield this text like a machete because we’re so passionate about the plight of the poor, we may unnecessarily wound church members whom God has blessed with wealth.
How can we balance prophetic boldness with pastoral sensitivity? James shows us the way by his repeated use of the term “brothers.” Three times he addresses these people for whom he has such sharp words as “my brothers.” That is, he identifies with them even as he brings the Word of God to them, sort of like a priest in the Old Testament, or like the great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Jesus came “full of grace and truth,” says John 1. Effective preaching must approach a hot button text like this with Christ-like grace and truth. As we faithfully and unflinchingly preach its hard truth, we must preach with graceful love for both rich and poor.
It is interesting to note that James does not approach the issue of income inequality with great pronouncements about its societal causes and its political cures, although, of course, the church in its prophetic role does make such pronouncements these days. Rather, James focuses on what the church must do when income inequality comes through the front door of the church. While there is a place for social justice ministries that attempts to change the shape of society, James begins here with the church’s practice of compassionate hospitality within its own walls. Before the church will able to change society, we must deal with income inequality within the church. Otherwise, we’ll have no credibility.
Please don’t take these cautious preliminary comments as a downplaying of the importance of this whole issue of poverty and wealth. In fact, it is so important that James roots his words about wealth-based “favoritism” in a very high doctrine of Christ. “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” Critics of this epistle often point out how thin and “strawy” (Luther) it is; there is little specifically “Christian stuff.” It could have been written by and for a Jewish group. Indeed, it undoubtedly was, as 1:l clearly says. But these were Christian Jews, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
The order of the Greek text is striking. It speaks of our Lord Jesus Christ, “the glory.” Commentators have wildly diverse ideas about the import of “the glory.” I like Sophie Law’s theory that “the glory” is a reference to the great theophanies of the Old Testament. Jesus, then, is the glory of God in human form. Jesus is not just glorious; he is “the glory,” the kabod, the shekinah, the visible manifestation of the invisible God. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) James bases his whole message about the rich and the poor on this high Christology. How we deal with income inequality in the church is not a peripheral matter. It is central to the Gospel of Christ, “who became poor so that we might become rich.”
The “glory” of God did not show favoritism when he became flesh and dwelled among Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor. Consistency requires the same of us, his followers. Consistency is the issue here. Our treatment of the poor (and, I will add, the rich) must be consistent with the ministry of Christ on our behalf, with our experience of God’s election and the world’s persecution, with the law of love, and with a living faith. That’s the progression of thought in James’ powerful words about how we treat the poor in church.
He begins with a vivid example of the issue so that no one can be mistaken about what he means by “favoritism.” The Greek word there is a Christian neologism, found nowhere outside the New Testament. It is prosopolempsiais, meaning literally “receiving the face.” It probably has to do with judging people on the basis of their face, accepting or rejecting them because of their appearance, judging a book by its cover. That is exactly the content of James’ example.
Two people come into your meeting, your synagogue in the Greek, probably a worship service, though some scholars see signs of a judicial meeting here. For purposes of this sermon, the former makes more practical sense. I see these men not as members, but as visitors, since they don’t have a regular place in the building. An usher meets them and shows them to an appropriate place from which they can observe and maybe participate in the worship. There is nothing wrong with this picture, until we learn that the usher has done his job in a way that is inconsistent with every part of the Christian faith.
One of the men is wearing a gold ring (literally “gold fingered” ala James Bond) and fine clothing. He receives special treatment and is shown to a good seat. The other man is dirt poor (the Greek refers not to the working poor, dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, but to a homeless person, dressed in rags and smelling of stale beer and rancid body odor). The usher gets one whiff of this vagrant and orders him to stand in a far corner away from the crowd or to sit on the floor, even though there are clearly seats available.
Based purely on appearances, on those tell-tale signs of wealth and poverty, the church has “received” these two men very differently. The NIV translation uses a word that has become anathema in our culture. “Have you not discriminated among yourselves?” Yes, there is a place for discrimination, for exercising careful judgment about art and food and clothes. But James is talking about the discrimination that arrives at judgment about people based on “evil thoughts,” thoughts about people’s worth based on their money or their class or their race or their sex. The church has been guilty of such discrimination for centuries now. And we have always found a way to justify it. “Those people are lazy, or smelly, or dishonest, or genetically inferior, or mentally ill.” There’s always a good reason to treat people differently based on the cover of the book.
But James will have none of it. He marshals argument after argument against favoritism based on income inequality. First, there is the experience of these Christians. Think about your own lives, your own election by God to be part of his Kingdom. Whom did God choose? “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom promised to those who love him?” God didn’t pay attention to your wealth when he elected you. Indeed, he showed “a preferential option for the poor,” as many contemporary social justice advocates put it. That is a powerful phrase with deep roots in Scripture, but it’s also a phrase filled with difficulty. For one thing, James does not say that God chooses all poor people to be in his kingdom. James specifically says that God chose these folks to be rich in faith. And they love God. That is not the case with all poor folks. Further, poverty is not a condition for election, any more than wealth disqualifies someone from being elected by God. Again, the Bible often speaks equivocally about the poor; sometimes they are materially poor, sometimes poor in spirit. So, we must be careful how we speak about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” But James is urging these Christians to treat the poor equally, based on their own experience of God’s electing love.
Further, he refers to their experience at the hands of the rich in their society. You are showing a “preferential option for the rich” fawning over them when they happen to drop by your church. But in the rest of your life, isn’t it the rich who persecute you and blaspheme the very name of our “glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Now, of course, that is an accurate sociological observation of that moment in time and space. It is not a blanket condemnation of the rich. Indeed, some of God’s most illustrious saints have been incredibly rich people; think of Abraham, Job, and David. As we preach this text, we must be careful not to tar all the rich with the same brush. James is merely saying that their experience with the hateful and unbelieving rich should keep them from giving preferential treatment to the rich at the expense of the poor. Treat them both with the same hospitable Christian love.
That love is the focus of James’ next major argument. The law of love absolutely requires equal treatment of both rich and poor. He refers to “the royal law found in Scripture,” distinguishing God’s law from the law of the Empire. The law of the land may countenance discrimination, whether based on race or gender or sexual orientation. Then the law of the land is changed by Congress or the Supreme Court, and suddenly certain kinds of discrimination are no longer legal. But Christians are under a higher law, the law of the Kingdom of God, the unchangeable law recorded in Scripture. No matter what the law of the land requires or allows, we are accountable to that royal law.
“If you really keep” that law, says James, “you are doing right.” But don’t think that you are keeping that law if you show favoritism and discriminate against the poor or the immigrants or the…. The heart of that royal law is “love your neighbor as yourself.” If you don’t do that, if you treat people differently based on the “cover of the book,” you can’t claim to be a law abiding citizen, a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. You are, in fact, a sinner and a lawbreaker.
James is very powerful here. In what sounds like a hyperbole, James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it.” That’s nonsense, of course, if we’re talking about the law of the land. Someone who breaks the speed limit has not, by virtue of breaking that law, become a breaker of the law against trespassing. The law of the land is often arbitrary and disconnected. The royal law was given by the King and is an expression of the King’s own nature. So lawbreaking is rebellion against who the King is. And rebellion is rebellion, however small or large it may be. So, if you keep all the commandments but break this one, you are still a sinner and a law breaker. James has more to say about this business of law and judgment and mercy, but the lectionary skips over verses 11-13 to move on to James last major argument against income based favoritism.
Such favoritism is, finally, inconsistent with real, living faith in Jesus Christ. Over the years, readers have often noted that verses 14-26 sound like a refutation of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. But it’s not that at all. It is, rather, a refutation of the antinomian doctrine of faith that doesn’t work. James is not arguing against faith; he is arguing against a certain kind of faith. “What good is it, my brothers (note again this pastoral, priestly address in the midst of strong language), if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” That’s at least a tacit acknowledgment that faith saves. The question is, what kind of faith?
James answers that question with another example, an example, not surprisingly, about income inequality in the church. Here it’s not a visitor to a worship service; it’s a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, who is poor. Real faith doesn’t just talk a good line of sympathy and support, wishing God’s blessing upon the poor. The best Christian faith-talk, whether it’s a sermon in the local church or a newspaper announcement by the national assembly, is not enough when it comes to helping the poor. Faith must do something about the physical needs of the poor. Otherwise, “what good is it?”
James ends his sermon on income inequality with the strongest possible terms. If you really have faith in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” you will show it not only by welcoming the poor into the church as equals, but also by giving to the poor so that they can become equals. (See II Corinthians 8:13-15 for Paul’s stunning statement about equality.) Faith that doesn’t act in practical ways to alleviate poverty is dead faith; “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
What a different place this world would be if Christians individually and together acted in a consistent way—consistent with the ministry of Jesus, consistent with their own experience at the hand of God and the hands of the world, consistent with the law of love, and consistent with faith that is truly alive.
I spent the last 22 years of my ministry in a tall steeple downtown church that was surrounded by a large population of homeless folks, folks who fit James’ description of the poor man who visits a worship service. We had a broad ministry to these poor folks and many visited our worship services. Our ushers and members worked hard to welcome them, but it wasn’t always easy. Some were mentally ill, a few were drunk or high, many hadn’t been able to shower before they came to church. We tried to honor them, while still taking account of those issues. And it didn’t always work as well as we would have liked.
I’ll never forget the night a homeless man crept to the front of the sanctuary during the first song and began to mount the pulpit. Afraid for my life, two ushers tried to stop him and get him to take a seat. When he resisted, they had to drag him to the back. This deeply upset the congregation which was very mindful of this text in James. It was preposterous, they said, to think that such a person would harm the minister. The ushers should have done better at dealing with that poor man.
But then, a few months ago, a visitor to a church in the South shot and killed the pastor and a number of others after a wonderful time of Bible study. All of which illustrates how difficult it is to be consistent Christians in a complicated and dangerous world. It will take all the faith and love we have. No, it will take Jesus living in and through us.
A recent issue of The Wall Street Journal showed the cultural relevance of these words of James. It explored the changing ways in which our culture defines objectionable language. A hundred or so years ago, it was religiously inappropriate language that was condemned. Taking God’s name in vain was forbidden. Now every other sentence is prefaced with “Oh my God.” More recently, it was sexually inappropriate language became the taboo du jour. There were certain sexual words you just couldn’t say in public. Now the F-bomb is dropped in polite company and cable TV all the time. Today the worst words are those that express discrimination of any kind. The worst cultural sin is not to be sacrilegious or scatological, but to speak in a derogatory manner about another race or gender or sexual orientation. Intolerance and discrimination are frowned upon more than anything else. Sounds a bit like James, doesn’t it?
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 6, 2015
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 Commentary