In God’s Politics Jim Wallis describes an experiment a seminarian once conducted. He cut every text about the poor out of an old Bible. It took him, Wallis reports, “a very long time.”
“When,” concludes Wallis, “the zealous seminarian was done with all his editorial cuts, that old Bible would hardly hold together, it was so sliced up. It was literally falling apart. What we had done was create a Bible full of holes.” It’s an evocative word picture of a holy Bible without reference to the poor as a book that’s so “holey” that it can hardly hold together.
Yet even the most faithful Christians have always found it tempting to gut our Bibles in ways similar to the seminarian. By naturally overlooking God’s stated concern for the poor, we essentially cut out the Bible’s calls to care for people who are needy. By ignoring what one theologian calls God’s “special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life,” we basically shrink God’s Word.
However, while God has a special concern for people who are poor, James 2 suggests that the Christians to whom it’s written, have the opposite preference. After all, it seems that one day when their worship service was just getting started, two people walked in. One of them clearly had much money that he had spent on his clothing and haircut. He may even have smelled a bit like money. The other person was obviously poor, with little money to spend on his clothing, haircut or hygiene products. He probably smelled more like moldy cheese than money.
Since it wasn’t a very big church, everyone could see what happened. Everyone watched the head usher make a big deal of the rich man. He enthusiastically greeted him, gave him a bulletin and showed him a good seat that he may even have held for him as he sat down. Perhaps the usher even elbowed a few people out of the way to make a place for the rich man.
However, the same usher indicated that there was no place in his church for the poor man to sit. He might have told him there weren’t any bulletins left. He certainly told him that all the seats were so full that he’d have to stand somewhere in the back near the door. We can almost see the head usher tripping all over himself to shove the poor guy out of view and onto the “back of the bus.”
We can almost picture the church: all the people with PhDs and money spread out across the front of the church, where everyone can see them. However, their employees and students are packed like sardines way in the back, dark corners of church.
Since everybody saw what was happening, James also noticed what was going on. So he may have gone right home, taken out his pen and scratched out a letter of protest to the church’s members, including its leaders. “My brothers in our glorious Lord Jesus,” he grieved, “don’t show favoritism. When you welcome the rich and shun the poor, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
She was a beloved missionary who worked tirelessly throughout her life with Appalachia’s poorest citizens, especially its many orphans. We always eagerly looked forward to her home visits on which she’d tell us memorable stories about God’s work among Appalachia’s poorest people.
The church in which I grew up didn’t have many people who were materially poor. God did, however, draw one family that was relatively poor into our fellowship. Our church tried to welcome that family with open arms. Yet with one phrase, our missionary effectively shunned them. She unapologetically used a racial slur to name one of the “hollers” where she worked. While I was probably in middle school at the time, I’ve never forgotten hearing that. I don’t think we ever saw that needy family in church again.
Many of the churches in which those who preach and teach James 2 try to make a difference in the lives of people who are needy. The church I serve, for example, runs a monthly food pantry, mentors students who are at-risk, as well as conducts a Bible study in a low-income senior citizen apartment complex.
Yet our church also struggles to know how to fully enfold people who are materially poor into the daily life of our church. Not many people who are impoverished even walk through our doors to join us for worship. So we don’t get much practice at welcoming the poor into our building.
That’s why I wonder what would happen if what occurred in one of our prominent neighboring churches took place in our church. One morning a man walked into its lovely sanctuary and down its center aisle to a seat right behind the pulpit as the pastor preached. Those who saw him recognized that the man struggled emotionally and socio-economically.
That recognition seemed to paralyze all of the worshipers – except for my friend whom I’ll call Joe. He quickly but quietly climbed to where the man had taken his seat and sat down right next to him. While many of Joe’s friends hoped if not expected him to talk their visitor down from his lofty perch, Joe didn’t. He simply comfortably took his place right next to him for the rest of the service.
Yet if someone’s going to walk down our churches’ center aisles, don’t we have to admit that we’d prefer to have people who are mentally and economically healthy do so? After all, they’re not likely to disrupt our worship services. What’s more, people who are socio-economically middle and upper class can help pay the church’s bills. So we prefer to surround ourselves with the kinds of people who look, sound, give and even smell quite a bit like us. In fact, I sense that many North American churches are becoming not just more racially and politically but also socio-economically monolithic.
When God, through James, calls us not to discriminate against the poor, God graciously disrupts our natural ways of treating society’s citizens who are most vulnerable. When God calls us to welcome the poor as warmly as God welcomes us, God invites us into the joy of imitating God.
However, the protection that God uses James to extend to people who are poor goes even deeper than just calling God’s children to welcome them into the church. Some of James’ contemporaries apparently believed that faith is more a matter of what we believe than of what we do. In fact, he suggests that some of his fellow Christians were contradicting what they said they believed by what they actually did.
In an old Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and Linus trudge through the snow bundled in fur hats, scarves, gloves and boots. As they battle the elements, they meet Snoopy. He’s standing forlornly in front of his doghouse, looking just plain miserable.
However, Charlie Brown does nothing for a shivering Snoopy but tell him, “Be of good cheer.” Linus adds, “Yes, Snoopy, be of good cheer.” Then they continue on their merry way, leaving Snoopy with what someone has called “a wonderful quizzical look on his face.”
God won’t just let James’ readers walk past people who are poor, leaving them only our flowery words. God reminds James’ readers that true religion is not just a matter of what we believe or even the rituals we practice. It’s certainly not just a matter of the nice words we sometimes say to people who are needy. God insists that true religion is also about how we treat each other, especially those whom society so easily marginalizes.
In fact, God goes so far as to say through James that faith without Christlike activity is, in fact, dead. Religious practice on Sunday without faithful living the other six days of the week is basically worthless. Instead of faithfully receiving God’s grace that grants eternal life, it only perpetuates spiritual death.
Thankfully, then, the faith that God graciously gives God’s adopted sons and daughters is a living faith. It’s a faith that doesn’t just say and know all the right things about God, God’s world and God’s creatures. James insists that the faith that God graciously gives us is a faith that, among other things, actively cares for the poor.
Yet you may know that such talk made people like Martin Luther very nervous. Once he rediscovered the grace of justification by faith Luther didn’t appreciate its repeated calls to do good works. However, one theologian wonders whether he had other reasons that some of us share for criticizing James. The great Reformer could be, after all, very critical of peasants and other people who were poor.
James implicitly asks how the ways the church treats people differs from the way society often treats people. Do Christians view the poor the way Jesus viewed them? Or do our congregations just duplicate our culture’s standards of prestige and success? Do we by what we do, in other words, effectively render a holy Bible “holey”?
Mary Glover lived in Jim Wallis’ neighborhood and helped distribute food in his ministry’s weekly food line. She was so poor that she too needed a bag of groceries each week. Yet Mary was also a kind of leader of the food ministry; she often said its prayer before it opened its doors on Saturday mornings. She was, after all, the ministry’s best pray-er. She was one of those people, writes Wallis, “who pray like they know to whom they’re talking.”
Mary would generally begin by praying something like, “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and that our bed was not our cooling board. Thank you, Lord!”
However, Mary also prayed in a way that showed that God had showed her what was at stake in our treatment of people who are materially poor. After all, Mary always prayed: “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 9, 2018
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 Commentary