James 2:1-7 – Favoritism is Foolish

My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?
 
Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens! Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you, who use the courts to rob you blind? Aren’t they the ones who scorn the new name—“Christian”—used in your baptisms? (The Message)
 
Have you ever felt like an outsider?  It is an awkward feeling, isn’t it? 
           
Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service. Picture that you are a 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. 
 
What is going through your mind?… What are you observing?… “Wow, that is a big building! I don’t know anybody here.” You work-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. Your inner dialogue may be, “Where do I go? Will anybody notice me? How am I supposed to act? Are my kids going to be okay?  Where do I sit?” All the things the regular attenders never think about and take for granted are at the forefront your mind. 
 
Not everyone thinks the same and has the same experiences – and that is the point the Apostle James was communicating to the insiders about the marginalized outsiders. 
 
If we are only attentive and aware and care about people who look just like us, think just like us, and act just like us, then we are playing favorites and have become judgmental persons who cannot be trusted with the things of God.
 
That’s a big reason why so many persons in the West today have no desire to be a regular church attender.
           
Showing favoritism is not a good thing. It’s foolish. The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom, “lifting up the face,” that is, taking something merely at face value. To make a biased judgment based only on surface impressions is contra God’s will.
 
Jesus freely associated with people of dubious morality. He went out of his way to hob-nob with hated tax collectors and came into close contact with ostracized lepers.
           
Discrimination of people based on our limited understanding of them is soundly condemned throughout Holy Scripture. 
 
You must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly. (Leviticus 19:15, NET)
 
Prejudice is wrong. (Proverbs 28:21, GNT)
 
I caused everyone to hate and despise you, because you disobeyed me and failed to treat all people alike. (Malachi 2:9, CEV)
 
Times change; God’s heart for the poor never changes. God cares for all kinds of people, not just “insiders.” 
 
The Apostle Peter had to get prejudice of Gentiles out of his heart. He had always assumed they were inferior and needed to be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to become woke.
 
“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35, CEB)
 
All people, without exception, are to be treated well and respected. 
 
Be fair with everyone, and don’t have any favorites. (1 Timothy 5:21, CEV)
 
God soundly condemns favoritism. Whenever we discriminate between people, we render opinions based on outward appearance. Then, there are only insidious motives toward outsiders to be used for one’s own advantage – which is at the heart of all discrimination and segregation.
           
The church James addressed had the mistaken notion that certain persons were better than others because of their ability to contribute to world missions and wield a big influence. 
 
The temptation was to suck-up to the rich. The church 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.
           
But James would have none of it. For him, showing favoritism was sin and reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. 
 
When things got rocky they turned to the rich, instead of coming to the Lord who has unlimited resources. 
 
Wherever you find favoritism, there you will find a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.
 
Inattention to the poor and needy might make good fiscal and business sense, but it will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead. 
 
Blaming poor people for being poor merely takes the attention off one’s own heart and need for repentance.
           
Showing favoritism ought to bring to the surface that we need to re-establish a true, genuine, authentic, and real relationship with Jesus who does not look at us for what we can do for him but loves us just because he wants to. 
 
People who show favoritism and give preferential treatment to certain persons only demonstrate that they are not gracious, merciful, and kind, like God is.
           
In the third century, Brother Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome. According to tradition, Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury and its mercy (benevolence) fund. One day the Prefect of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.”
 
Lawrence sent back a message: “I do not deny that our Church is rich … and that no one in the world is richer, not even the emperor …. 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 ran about the city of Rome, collecting the Church’s treasures. But they were not the sort of treasures the greedy Prefect was dreaming of. Instead, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of the city and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers.
 
The people Brother Lawrence gathered into the church 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. He wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church. Only then did he seek out the Prefect to bring him to the church.
 
“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. 
 
Getting rid of favoritism only happens whenever we adopt a ministry of mercy toward the poor.
 
Learn. Get to know a family in poverty. Listen to their story. Find out the roots of their situation. See how incredibly resourceful and resilient they are at getting by and how they are helping others.
 
Act. Volunteer at the local food pantry. Deliver meals at Christmas. Do some research on poverty in your area.  Find out what poverty level is and calculate if you could live on that amount. Take a helping vacation or mission trip. Send a needy student to college. Find out what organizations need to help those in poverty. Show respect to everyone who is need.
 
Connect. Do you have any ways of helping people out of poverty? Feel free to share what you have done.
 
Come, Holy Spirit, and open our hearts, minds, and souls to your presence. Grace us with the strength to follow the example of Jesus. May you provide us with a voice to cry out for justice for the poor. Remind us that what we do to the least of those among us, we do to you. Amen.

Psalm 82 – Help Others, Without Prejudice

“The Thankful Poor” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894

God takes his place in his own assembly.
He pronounces judgment among the gods:
“How long are you going to judge unfairly?
How long are you going to side with wicked people?”

Defend weak people and orphans.
Protect the rights of the oppressed and the poor.
Rescue weak and needy people.
Help them escape the power of wicked people.

Wicked people do not know or understand anything.
As they walk around in the dark,
all the foundations of the earth shake.
I said, “You are gods.
You are all sons of the Most High.
You will certainly die like humans
and fall like any prince.”

Arise, O God!
Judge the earth, because all the nations belong to you. (God’s Word Translation)

“My dear friends, pay attention. God has given a lot of faith to the poor people in this world. He has also promised them a share in his kingdom that he will give to everyone who loves him.”

James 2:5, CEV

God’s mercy and grace is what makes the world go round. God’s attention to people who possess little to nothing is what upholds the earth from being consumed with judgment.

An absence of grace in people is offensive to God. An uncharitable spirit, indifferent to those in need, will eventually face the crushing weight of God’s glory upon them.

The psalmist is uncompromisingly clear on divine imperatives for humanity: defend the weak; protect the rights of the poor; rescue the needy; and deliver them from unjust power. That’s what God does. And that is what we are to do, without prejudice.

When I was growing up, our family dog was named “Sam.” Sam loved being on the farm. One time he tussled with a skunk. I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly. 

Favoritism toward those with means over those who don’t, stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. And the Lord 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. In order to develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice.

No matter how you slice the Bible, God cares about persons trapped in poverty. The poor are important to the Lord. 

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he pointed people to the words of the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18) 

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was such a pervasive reality (and still is across the world!). The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness; those born into poverty; being poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery; simple beggars; and the pious humble poor. 

These spiritual poor persons are the Hebrew “anawim.” (pronounced “on-a-wheem”) The anawim are humble persons caught in grinding poverty, having no choice but to put their trust in God.

God has a lot to say about such persons because they are near and dear to the divine heart. Old Testament law was quite clear about how to treat the poor. 

Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

Do not cheat poor and needy hired servants, whether they are Israelites or foreigners living in one of your towns. Each day before sunset pay them for that day’s work; they need the money and have counted on getting it. If you do not pay them, they will cry out against you to the Lord, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, GNT) 

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the poor, the anawim, was the chief reason God sent prophets to Israel. 

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done! (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

Instead of being generous to the poor and allowing them to forage for grain at harvest behind the harvesters, they kept “those people” away from the fields so that they could turn a profit at every little bit they could. And God thought it all stunk to high heaven.

Bear in mind, only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom of heaven. The real issue is humility that demonstrates grace to people who cannot offer you something in return. 

It’s easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch your back. It’s altogether a different thing to be humble, gracious, and generous to those you know cannot give anything back to you.

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. 

Inattention to the needy only betrays a heart far from the Lord. God does not judge people on face value and the state of their finances, and neither should we.

The only way to rid ourselves of the stench of showing favoritism is to receive the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. The shampoo of grace is available, that is, if we will let God apply it. 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.

Ministry to the poor is a non-negotiable for the Christian and Christ’s Church. 

Beyond mere dispensing of benevolent funds, the poor also need relationships, connections, resources, and a chance to give back in ways they can contribute. That’s just part of being attentive to them and extending basic human respect and dignity. 

How do you or your church show their concern for the poor in your city and/or region?

Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all the poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, gracious Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Micah 4:6-8 – Belonging

“In that day,” declares the Lord,

“I will gather the lame;
    I will assemble the exiles
    and those I have brought to grief.
I will make the lame my remnant,
    those driven away a strong nation.
The Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion
    from that day and forever.
As for you, watchtower of the flock,
    stronghold of Daughter Zion,
the former dominion will be restored to you;
    kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.” (New International Version)

One of the great tragedies of our world, as well as one of the worst feelings of humanity, is the sense that one does not belong.

Since people are hard-wired by God for community, belonging is essential, not optional. The image of the rugged individualist who gets things done on their own terms and marches to the beat of a different drum might be an appealing picture to many Westerners – but it falls woefully short of real lived human experience.

Since the fall of humanity, people have tended to group themselves into insiders and outsiders. In other words, discrimination is the enemy of true belonging. And, what’s more, there always seems to be people who are ready to create such division for their own purpose and profit. Indeed, it’s an age old tale, perhaps best told by Dr. Seuss in his classis book, Sneetches and Other Stories (1961).

In the story, Sneetches with stars on their bellies discriminate against and shun those without. A slick entrepreneur, Sylvester McMonkey McBean, offers the Sneetches without stars on their bellies the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars, of course.

The application of stars upon thars is instantly and wildly popular. However, this abjectly upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches. They are in danger of losing their special status! So, McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, of course, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed.

Since McBean only cares about profit, he allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine, as well. Ultimately, the entire affair escalates, with all the Sneetches running from one machine to the next…

“…until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew

whether this one was that one… or that one was this one…

or which one was what one… or what one was who.”

The Sneetches end up penniless. McBean leaves a rich man. The Sneetches learn from the experience that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior. They finally become friends. Dr. Suess intended his story to be a satire of discrimination between races and cultures.

The kingdom of God is an egalitarian realm. There are no walls and barriers dividing people into opposing groups. And there isn’t such a thing as marginal, excluded, insignificant, forbidden, or discounted people.

Micah’s prophecy tells not of the privileged and powerful coming together for renewal but the lame. God’s care in maintaining a remnant and gathering them for restoration will be made up of the wounded, the ones who have no ability to bring themselves to the center.

The upside-down kingdom of God makes the last first, and the first, last. The Lord’s rule and reign champions the disabled and the misfits – those without an ability to come. They may be forgotten by others but never by God.

Like Santa coming to the island of misfit toys, rescuing and airlifting forgotten toys so that they can become treasured gifts for boys and girls – so God creates belonging where there seems none to be had. And leading the effort is a tossed aside reindeer named Rudolph, using his unique “deformity” to cut through the tough winter storm.

Perhaps you feel a bit, or maybe a lot, like the square peg trying to fit into a round hole. It could be that you wonder whether there is a place for you. You have experienced life as something of an oddity, as if the normal world around you is not aware of your very personhood.

The good news is that a prominent place is given to the humble, for those attempting to make a difference in the world that gives them no place to belong. God sees. God hears. God knows. God cares.

The Lord sends a Savior, a Deliverer, who will himself be a peculiar individual on this earth. It will seem as if he is from another place… which he is. But, then again, aren’t we all? Each of us was crafted with divine care and attention.

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened. (Psalm 139:13-16, CEB)

The Lord has good plans for you and me. It might seem as if there are times God is placing a heavy hand upon us, even punishing. Yet, restoration is in the future. In this season of the year, we celebrate that Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

May Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one, things earthly and heavenly, fill you with joy and peace. Amen.