My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old 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 thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: 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? But you have dishonored the poor. 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 blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
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. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
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. (New International Version)
Being an Outsider
It’s awkward feeling like an outsider. As a young pastor in Michigan, I once went to make a hospital call on one of my parishioners. He was having a procedure done at Ford Hospital in Detroit. I had never been there before. I parked my car and walked into the hospital, just like I had done at several hospitals before.
Yet, there was something different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, I realized, I didn’t see any other Caucasian people. Every person I encountered was African-American.
Up to that point in my life, I was never a minority in any situation. Although everyone in the hospital was polite and respectful, it was still weird for me. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in the midst of that experience, “Huh, so that’s what it feels like for my African-American friends!”
Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service. You are just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy. You have never been to this church before. You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. “Wow, that building is big! I don’t know anybody here, except Mary.”
Mary isn’t here today. You gin-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. “Where do I go? Will anybody notice me? How am I supposed to act? Where do I sit?” All the things we take for granted are at the forefront of your mind.
Favoritism is Insider Judgment
Not everyone thinks or lives the same – and that is the point the Apostle James is trying to get across to us. If we are only attentive, aware, and care about people who look like us, think like us, and live like us, then we are playing favorites. And God calls that being judgmental.
The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom literally meaning, “lifting up the face.” That is, taking something merely at face value. To make a biased judgment based on only surface impressions is not good. It is not the way of Jesus, who associated with people of dubious morality and came into close contact with ostracized persons, like lepers. Discrimination based on limited understanding is soundly condemned in Scripture.
Be fair, no matter who is on trial—don’t favor either the poor or the rich. (Leviticus 19:15, CEV)
Times change; God’s heart doesn’t. The Lord cares for all kinds of people, not just insiders. Peter had to get that into his head and heart concerning Gentiles, whom he considered inferior. He took for granted they were to always be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to get this testimony into his life:
“Now I understand that God doesn’t play favorites. Rather, whoever respects God and does what is right is acceptable to him in any nation.” (Acts 10:34-35, GW)
A poor woman once wanted to join a church. She went to the pastor, and he told her to pray about becoming a member. The pastor did not see the woman for months and then one day met her on the street. He asked her if she had been praying and what she had decided about joining the church. She said, “I did what you asked me to do, and one day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting into that church – I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!’”
The church the Apostle James addressed had the mistaken notion certain persons were better than others because of their ability to financially contribute and wield influence. Put yourselves in the shoes of those ancient church folks.
These are refugees trying to make it in a strange country. It was tempting and easy to suck-up to the rich persons who came to their meetings. They needed some stable donors, and not some poor people who were going to drain their already short resources. Showing preferential treatment to the wealthy only made sense to them.
Favoritism is a Heart Problem
For the Apostle James, showing favoritism reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. When things got rocky, the church turned to money and those with it, instead of coming to the Lord and seeking God’s unlimited resources. Inattention to the poor and needy might make good business sense but will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead.
Far too many Christians believe poor people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. There are certainly lazy people in this world, and maybe we are some of them – too spiritually lazy to take the time and effort to get to know persons in poverty and those very different from ourselves.
In the third century, a church deacon named Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury (benevolence fund) in Rome. One day the prefect (mayor) of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.” Lawrence sent back a message: “I will bring forth all the precious things that belong to Christ, if only you will give me a little time to gather everything together.” The prefect agreed, as he dreamed of what he could do with the money, gold, and silver.
For three days, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of Rome and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers. The people he gathered included a man with two eyeless sockets, a disabled man with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with one leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities.
Lawrence wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church at his appointment with the prefect. “These are the treasures of the Church of Christ!” Lawrence declared, as he presented the ragged crowd to the astonished prefect. “Their bodies may not be beautiful, but within these vessels of clay they bear all the treasures of divine grace.”
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society – just as he did with the rich and influential.
Growing up, I had a dog named “Sam.” Sam loved being on the farm. One time he tussled with a skunk. I could barely get close enough to him to clean him up because he stunk so badly. Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. And he is going to clean us up when he smells the stench of discrimination on us.
Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence that the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice.
Three Reasons Why Favoritism Stinks
1. A theological reason: Jesus doesn’t show favoritism to the rich.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18, NIV)
In the Old Testament, God said:
There will always be poor people in the land, so I command you to give freely to your neighbors and to the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, NCV)
God is looking for humble persons, giving grace to people who cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. It is altogether a different thing to give without any expectations of response.
2. A logical reason: Favoritism comes from a materialistic heart.
Money does change us. Research by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to support statements like “some groups of people are simply inferior to others.”
Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate towards others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds.
Some people are willing to put up with being treated unfairly, just so they can be the recipients of a rich person’s wealth and position. Favoritism ignores the sin in others in order to gain something from them. That is stinking thinking.
3. A biblical reason: Favoritism is a violation of God’s law.
The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God. Love neighbor. Favoritism is a violation of loving our neighbor. Therefore, to discriminate on any basis is to disobey God.
Who is my neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that any needy human being we encounter – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, religion, or anything identifying them as different – is to be helped when we have the opportunity to do so.
Ernest Gordon was a P.O.W. who wrote a book about his experiences in a Japanese concentration camp in 1942. The Japanese were ruthless and horribly treated their prisoners. With barely any food to survive, the law of the jungle ruled amongst the prisoners. But a Christian prisoner operated with a different set of rules. He continually shared his food with other prisoners to the point where he actually starved to death because of it.
The other prisoners could not understand why this guy would do such a thing, until they found a Bible in his few belongings. One by one the prisoners read his Bible and found in it the principle of love and not showing favoritism. Eventually, the entire camp changed and came to know Christ because of one man’s humble spirit to be generous with what he had.
Speak and Act with Mercy
Words are important, and are to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. An active faith without merciful words is not really faith at all – it is an excuse to keep a galloping tongue going. Showing mercy, instead of favoritism, is the way love expresses itself.
The stench of showing favoritism goes away with a cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. God is the expert in:
- Turning people from only associating with those they are comfortable with, to lovingly reaching out to people very different from themselves.
- Changing people from the stinking thinking about what they can continually obtain and consume, to people who are loving and generous with their words and their physical resources.
- Putting to death a proud spirit that looks to get ahead and accomplish an agenda by any means possible, to giving new life through humble repentance.
Let’s make it our goal to give grace, to be like Jesus. Amen.