Grace Presbyterian Church
September 9, 2018, Pentecost 16B
Favoritism and Faithlessness
Favoritism. It’s not usually thought of as a nice word, is it?
Say someone gets promoted over you at work, especially if that someone is related to the boss, for example. Pretty quickly the assumption is going to get around that the boss showed favor towards that relative, no matter how well-suited that person might be for the new job. It just sounds ugly.
That’s often the kind of context in which “favoritism” gets invoked. The context James invokes in our reading today is perhaps not so dramatically different from that as it might seem. Two people enter the church’s meeting place, one clearly rich and the other clearly … not. The congregation is rather obsequiously fawning over the clearly rich guy, and the other is more or less shunted off to the side. And James makes it clear that’s not how the community is supposed to receive people.
Now this isn’t just James talking off the top of his head; scripture is practically doused with the theme of showing favor to the poor. You might remember from last week’s scripture the reference James makes to caring for “widows and orphans” as the ultimate expression of the community’s doing of the Word, as opposed to being merely hearers. As noted then, that phrase echoes through scripture, not just in the edicts of the Law or the fiery denunciations of the prophets. Even in today’s responsive reading of Psalm 146 that phrase happens, in reverse order: the Lord “upholds the orphan and the widow,” with the strong implication being that we’d better imitate the Lord in that respect.
That’s not all. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament picks up the theme of God’s favor to the poor as well, as our selection of verses from Proverbs 22 illustrates. Here the Lord pleads their cause, and what the Lord does to those who harm them is pretty extreme – “despoils of life those who despoils them”! And there are plenty of quotes in the Gospels where Jesus expresses similar ideas – you might look at the Beatitudes, for example.
So no, James isn’t saying anything new here; if anything he’s taking a fairly easy shot. Favoritism on that basis is not right, and is not how the community of Jesus’s followers is to react to those who come to them. When James speaks in verse five of God choosing the poor to be “rich in faith” and “heirs of the kingdom,” he’s tapping into this particularly rich and fertile vein of scripture. We don’t really have any wiggle room with this part of the scripture; if that’s how the community reacts to newcomers, then the community is in error.
James follows this with a rather interesting point in verses six and seven, one that we in the American church might have trouble understanding. With a few exceptions (the church at Corinth that so vexed Paul being one), the earliest communities of followers of Christ mostly consisted, not necessarily of poor people entirely, but of persons who were not wealthy, and who were not generally of great status in the community. There might be one member who was wealthy enough to have a house large enough to hold the community for its gatherings, but most of the community wouldn’t have been terribly well off.
James points out that not only were his readers not rich, but that they were actively harassed by the rich. Why, James wonders, would you be so eager to fawn all over the people who “oppress you,” who “drag you into court,” and who – worst of all – “blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you,” that is, the name of Jesus?
We have trouble with that because, to put it bluntly, in the United States the church pretty often is rich people. We’re not really in a great position to understand all these scriptural references to God’s favor to the poor, because we can’t really understand why God would favor the poor when we – most of us being, if not rich, definitely not poor – such nice people, such good church folk? God can’t really mean us, can God? But the teaching of scripture remains firm on this one. I suspect very few of us have any clue how the lives we live, the resources we consume, the privileges we claim without even knowing it affect the lives of those less wealthy than we. Yes, God does mean us, and we’d better get to adjusting our lives accordingly.
We’ve so far come through one of the three parts of this passage, and it might seem that the next two really don’t necessarily relate to this discourse on favoritism. Not so, says James. Indeed all of what follows, really does follow from this discussion.
First of all, this favoritism that James criticizes runs afoul of what he calls the “royal law,” a command first found in scripture in Leviticus 19:18. It’s far more familiar to us from Jesus’s citation of it as the second of the two great commandments, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Matthew 22:37-40 version is particularly illuminating for our passage here, not only for the ‘what’ of its usage but the ‘why’ as well:
He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It isn’t about one commandment or another superseding all the others: it’s that these two commandments (the first is found in Deuteronomy 6:4) are the foundation on which all the commandments are based. Everything in the ones we know as the Ten Commandments and all of the other teaching found as “Law” in the Torah is founded in some way in these two. By this standard the partiality that James is calling out among the churches is, in his word, sin. Those who do it are “convicted by the law as transgressors.”
James then engages in a bit of out-there comparison to make the point that the Law isn’t a cafeteria of suggestions for living your best life now. You transgress the law in one point, you are in violation of it all. James’s point isn’t to accuse his readers of adultery or murder (two of the “big ten,” as you’ll recall); his point is that it’s pointless to boast about honoring one of those commandments if you’re violating the other – that’s how it is with the Law. Aren’t you better off, as he says in verse 12, to “speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” – especially if we are to have any hope of mercy for ourselves?
With this we now (finally) return to one of those themes James threw at us in last week’s reading: faith being reflected in our works. When we show this favoritism, we are transgressing against the Law and setting ourselves up for judgment, yes; but even worse we are trying to claim to have faith when our deeds say otherwise.
Is the kind of faith that doesn’t show in your actions the kind of faith that saves you? Is the kind of faith that you have to keep yammering on about because nobody can tell you’re a Christian otherwise really going to save you? Is the kind of faith that does nothing to meet the need of the one in crisis, but merely dismisses the needy or the wounded or the grieving with “thoughts and prayers” – is that faith real?
James is pretty insistent that it isn’t. The kicker is the challenge in verse 18: “show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” You say you have faith; how are you going to show it? Are you just going to talk people to death to show off how righteous you are? Is that faith? No, no, no.
Faith gets up and goes out and lives out loud.
Let it ever be so with us.
For faith that acts, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #610, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing; #848, Trust In God; #762, When the Poor Ones; #766, The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound