"Disposed to Discriminate"
James 2:1-17 Oct.25, 2009
POISONED BY PREJUDICE
This week, coming out of the grocery store, I noticed a tall man with long black hair, aboriginal features, and a tough-looking face standing on the sidewalk. Part of me wanted to do the neighbourly thing like Lot in Genesis 19(1-3) - maybe reach out a friendly hand and welcome him if he wasn't from the area. But another part of me had doubts: this looked like the sort of guy who could have spent time in prison; so big and strong as to be intimidating, like the native fellow in One flew over the cuckoo's nest. Just then another native man came out of the store with long greying hair in a pony tail down his back, having bought a bottle of water and some food for the road. Together they got into a car and prepared to head on their way. The first part of me wanted to ask them if they needed any directions; the other part wondered, What if they have a trunkful of contraband - maybe illegal cigarettes?
Now, if they'd been a couple of Caucasians, many of those misgivings would never have occurred to me. Realistically, what's the likelihood of them having a trunkful of cigarettes, anyway? In the end, my prejudice prevented me from doing the neighbourly thing, the loving action.
Watching the Relief & Development DVD, it's also easy to react in redneck style. The DVD says, "There's enough food for everybody, but not everybody has enough food." One might respond, "Well, what's the matter with those people? Why can't they get it together?" But having worked in a developing country, I know the solutions aren't that simple. If a poor country has to decide between education or health or road repair - that may be why the farmers can't get their produce to market.
In another incident this past week, I was conversing with someone about the video released by the court of the fertilizer bomb planned by the "Toronto 18". The other person's immediate response was to ask, "Did they say if they were immigrants?" The way they said it raised a 'caution' flag - obviously I'd touched a sore spot. The person went on to complain how the country is letting too many immigrants in. I refused to get drawn into that, replying instead that we're not doing an adequate job of maintaining our population on our own.
Prejudice can be ugly - especially when it's another person's prejudice. But we all do it; we are all disposed to discriminate. We continually make unconscious distinctions, evaluations, preferences often based solely on superficial factors a person has little or no control over - things like employment, health (such as epilepsy / diabetes), marital status, and so on. Too often what passes for humour can be at the expense of some outwardly-based class of people - such as blonde jokes, newfie jokes, lawyer jokes, etc. (I suppose laywers have a choice whether to be lawyers or not - but even there, we tar with a very broad brush!)
Continuing in James' epistle to the early church, we find that he equates favouritism with sin. Favouritism can be based on our prejudices. We don't have to play favourites; Jesus' mercy and riches for us teach us to not be so quick in our judging.
WRONG APPREHENSION OF GLORY
Prejudice and favouritism arise, James suggests first of all, when we have a wrong apprehension of glory. What wows you? What do you dream about acquiring / having / being? That tells us something about our preferences, our prejudices, what we 'glory' in (or would if we had it), the unconscious basis upon which we evaluate people. Also our possible idolatry, what we're worshipping or what's driving us rather than God.
James offers a couple of real-life scenarios. First, our inclination to dismiss those lacking food and clothing. 2:15-16, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" We've dismissed them, discounted them, acted as if their problem doesn't exist. We in the West infected by 'compassion fatigue' can do it pretty quickly. But how does James describe our spirituality if we do nothing about those legitimate physical needs? V17, "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is DEAD." We're in bondage to dead doctrine if we merely dismiss those who disgust or disinterest us.
In vv2-3 he offers another example: A rich man enters your church meeting sporting fancy clothes and gold rings. Simultaneously, a poor man in 'shabby' (lit.dirty) clothes comes in; this would have been understandable in the first century: the "Lord's Day", the first day of the week, was a regular working day, so people could be coming to church on their way home from a full day at their job - maybe herding sheep, cleaning out box stalls - Palestine's a hot dry country - you get the picture! So, how do we respond to these two? James writes in 3-4, "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?" That would be discriminatory, based on 'evil motives' (NLT).
The word James uses for 'favouritism' is literally 'face-receiving', based on a Hebrew idiom to "lift up the face" on a person, that is, accept them conditionally based on superficial factors - what's on the surface. Favouritism is wrong on at least 4 counts. First, note the basis upon which James begins in v1: "My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism." Interesting word construction here - literally, "Jesus Christ the Glory". As believers in Him who is so glorious, we're not to show favouritism. Jesus defines glory for us; He's the One we're to be most 'wowed' by, not glowing rings or flashy clothes. What's Jesus' glory based on? His grace; 2Cor 8:9 describes that for us, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." Jesus saved us when we were still beggars spiritually; material riches couldn't do that. We can be wowed by such glorious grace that sees past our spiritual poverty and conveys a kingdom.
Here's a question for discussion: How much does "the Glory" of Jesus wow us, compared to earthly attractions and influences? What do 'eyes of the world' tempt you to glory or boast in?
WRONG APPRAISAL OF THE RICH
V2 talks about making the poor person stand or sit on the floor, while the rich person is offered the best seat in the house. James asks, "Who really are the rich?" V6, they're the ones who are exploiting or oppressing, perhaps such as landlords or lenders in a day of exorbitant rent and interest. Acts 10:38 uses the same wording to describe those "under the power of" or oppressed by the devil. Money can be a means of domination.
James says the rich are the ones "dragging you into court" - busy protecting their own interests, bribing judges perhaps, having the system in their pocket since they hang out at the same clubs, they're on each other's boards and cit councils. Sometimes those who are rich like to run things; money becomes a means of wielding power and significance. (Remember James is writing largely to dispersed Christian Jews who fled persecution hurriedly, and likely didn't have much wealth to get started up in their new locations.)
V7, the rich are "the ones who are slandering the noble name of Him to whom you belong" - literally, the Name invoked upon you, probably a reference to baptism. Today in many countries those in power have thrown in prison active Christians. Here in the affluent West, is the name of Jesus slandered? This past week Alice Munro spoke at an international authors' festival. She remarked there aren't nearly as many taboos as there used to be; one of her first works caused a stir decades ago when the words "Jesus Christ" were included in a character's speech. That apparently is quite acceptable now, not 'taboo' at all... Affluence erodes morality.
While an earthly view might choose to be rich, God's choice is more often of the poor - not as a class on the whole per se, but the believers among them; the poor don't have the stumbling block of material wealth to place false trust in. James asks in 2:5, "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?" Recalls Jesus' saying, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Lu 6:20) Wouldn't that sound like wonderful news to the exploited? Paul puts earthly boasting in perspective in 1Co 3(21), "So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours..." In Jesus, even earth's poorest citizen is rich eternally. We just need different eyes to see it. Ephesians 1:18, "I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints..."
Another question for discussion: Can you think of examples of people you've known who weren't rich materially but were 'rich in faith' despite tough circumstances?
WRONG APPROACH TO THE LAW
Prejudice can be based on wealth; it can also be based on legalism, keeping-the-rules. Those who are thoroughly 'churchified' may look down their noses at new believers or those with learning challenges who are still rough around the edges. James challenges these in vv10-11, saying if we keep the whole law but stumble at just one point, we're guilty of breaking all of it. For example, a person who doesn't commit adultery but does murder is still guilty of being a lawbreaker, someone who has 'stepped across the line'. How much more so if someone (by their favouritism) breaks what James in v8 calls the 'royal law in Scripture' or 'the king of laws', "Love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus too identified that as part of the Greatest Commandment, along with loving God with your whole being (Mt 22:39).
They're quoting Leviticus 19:18. What is "love" there in context? Is it some warm benevolent regard for another, little more than a positive feeling? Look at the nearby verses: Lev 19:15 days, "Do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great." Right on topic! And the first half of v18 itself says, "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself." Love then doesn't mean some airy feeling, but includes forgiving wrongs done, debts owed, treating others justly. Love is absorptive, choosing to pay the cost of the emotional pain another has caused, releasing them.
Question for discussion: How can we in the church not only be upholding God's laws, but also 'loving our neighbour' in practical, non-patronizing ways?
WRONG APPRECIATION OF MERCY
Four things wrong about favouritism: it misses out on glory, on what real riches are, on moral law, and last - it has a wrong appreciation of mercy. Look at vv12-13: here we find he antidote to legalism that Christians can fall into. "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom..." We know from 2Tim 3:16 that Scripture is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" - that's helpful to live by, but it's not licence for one person to clobber another when they stumble. an air of moral superiority can stink. We need to be alert to our prejudices or partiality based even on moral 'high ground'. Respond with mercy, not like some Grand Inquisitor.
V13, "...judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!" That last bit can be translated, "Mercy glories / exults over judgment." God is wowed more by merch than be dutiful keeping of religious obligations, going through the motions, toeing the line fearfully. Jesus loved to quote the Old Testament passage where God says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." In the parable of the unmerciful servant, He taught we must never forget the mercy God has shown us through the cross of Jesus as we interact with imperfect people.
A question to ponder here: When was a time someone showed you mercy when you'd blown it?
HELPING, NOT FORCING, THE POOR TO STAND
James warns against treating the poor as second-class - saying to them "You stand there" or exploiting and oppressing them so they're under our power or dependent (3,6). Today on Relief and Development Sunday, we want to respond to the needs of the poor for food and clothing - real faith does something positive about their daily necessities; but in a way that is fair, loving them as our neighbour in dignity, not insulting them but treating them with respect (6,15).
As we browse the R&D pamphlet, we can spot projects that help the poor 'stand on their own'. P4, in Sudan, a Canadian Foodgrains Bank "food for work" project is building irrigation systems. P5, Ethiopia - there's an initiative to inrease the decision-making power of women and families in community. P6, Bangladesh - World Relief Canada is employing 1600 mud-cutters to clear 57 km of silted canals so the waterlogged soil can be used for farming. Pp10-11 Haiti: welding and carpentry training centres prepares folks to stat their own business so they can help support their family; and Lydia Centres enable women to provide the basic necessities of life for their families. Not a 'handout' but a 'hand-up' as the saying goes.
But I'll close referring to p7, Rwanda, a microfinance program: there's a 'success story' of Jeanine Kayiraba, who has received and repaid 9 loans over the past 3 years. She's been able to improve weekly income for her family of 2 children from $6 to $40. More than that, the overall program which has helped 24,000 clients has been so successful this is the last year that aid is necessary; "In 2010 this microfinance project will stand on its own." That's not discriminating against the poor or putting them down, but helping them stand on their own two feet.
Now for our brief discussion time, about 5 minutes, we'll divide up into 4(-5) groups with an elder in each to facilitate discussion of the questions - or other insights the Lord may have been showing you! How's the Lord wanting to make these eternal truths real in YOUR life?