FaithWorks: Who’s Your Favorite? Sermon on James 2:1-13

September 6, 2018

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to make a decision, and you just couldn’t decide? You’d looked at all the options, and there didn’t seem to be one right answer, one perfect solution. So you asked for some help. You talked to someone you trusted to get their opinion. And after they listened to all those options, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Do whatever you think is best. You’ll just have to make a judgment call.”

We see it all the time in sports. The referee makes a call on a play that isn’t really clear from the sidelines, so they review it. And as the commentators in the booth discuss the slow motion video of the play from all possible angles, they can’t decide which way it should go, either. But the game has to go on. Everyone depends on the ref’s best judgment to make the final call.

We make judgments all the time. We make choices based on the best information we can gather. Sometimes those choices are good ones, and sometimes we make poor choices, Either way, every choice we make is a judgment call.

But there’s a difference between judging and being judgmental. Judgment holds our decisions accountable to a standard, often one we didn’t create.[1] For Christians, that standard is the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. But when we get judgmental, we start comparing ourselves to other people, and the standard we often use is our own ego.

When we get judgmental, we might compare ourselves to someone else and decide that we are better than they are. Of course, we don’t put it like that. Instead, we focus on what’s wrong with the other person, the mistakes they’ve made. It’s easy to look down on someone who doesn’t measure up to our standard – but it might be difficult for us to see that the standard we are using is our own view of ourselves.

Sometimes our judgmentalism tells us that other people are better than we are, too. We see them as more successful, more intelligent, more lovable than we are. It works both ways. Whether we think we are morally superior to someone else, or somehow inferior, the problem is that we are being judgmental. That affects the way we treat people. And it can lead us into sin.

We’re in week two of our series from the book of James, called “Faith Works.” The younger brother of Jesus is teaching us how to develop a working faith by working our faith.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1-13)

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” It sounds as if James is challenging the sincerity of our faith in Jesus! Can you really call yourselves Christians if you show favoritism to one person and disdain to another?

Now, one of the problems with translating the New Testament is that there isn’t any punctuation in the original Greek. So that first question James asks might actually be a statement. Some translations read: “Hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ without acts of favoritism.”

Hold the faith. That puts a little different slant on verse one. Instead of asking us if we are really Christians, James encourages us to show our faith by the way we treat people with fairness and impartiality.

But whether you think of it as a challenging question or an encouraging statement, one thing is clear: favoritism within the church is a sin. And it seems that the early church had just as much trouble as we do when it comes to ignoring the poor in order to show favor to the rich.

Imagine that you are the usher on duty one Sunday, when a guest comes through the door dressed in expensive clothes, wearing elegant jewelry, and walking with an air of importance. Right behind this person is another guest, wearing dirty clothes that are torn, carrying a backpack that has seen better days, and smelling like it’s been a while since this person has taken a shower.

Are you going to welcome them the same way? Probably you will, because you all are polite people. But where will you encourage them to sit? Will you seat the well-dressed person next to the church member you think will impress them the most? Will you seat the smelly backpacker in that same pew – or as far away as possible, maybe in the last row under the balcony? Maybe out in the lobby? And what assumptions have we already made about these two guests, based on their appearance and their … aroma? If you’re the usher who passes the offering plate to these two guests, what are your expectations about the amount they will put into the plate?

James says we shouldn’t make any distinctions, because showing partiality to one person or another divides the community. Playing favorites tears apart the Body of Christ, and damages our witness to the world. Besides, when we show favor to the rich at the expense of the poor, we go against everything Jesus taught. Throughout scripture, we find over and over again that God honors the poor and oppressed, not the oppressors.

In the early 1970s, Jim Wallis and some friends from seminary founded an organization that came to be known as Sojourners. These seminary students wanted to explore how their faith intersected with social and political issues of the day. They identified themselves as “a committed group of Christians who work together to live a gospel life that integrates spiritual renewal and social justice.”[2] In his book, God’s Politics, Wallis describes the beginnings of Sojourners.

“In his first year in seminary, Jim Wallis and friends did a thorough study to find every verse in the Bible that deals with the poor and social injustice. They came up with thousands, in the first three Gospels one out of ten verses, in Luke one out of seven! They could not recall a single sermon on the poor in their home churches. One of them found an old Bible and began to cut out every single biblical text about the poor. Much of the Psalms and prophets disappeared. That old Bible would hardly hold together. They had created a Bible full of holes.”[3]

God cares about the poor. God has always cared about the poor. And there is something in this passage from James that we might not fully understand, reading from the perspective of our 21st century middle class comfort. The people to whom James was writing were most likely poor themselves.

According to Aaron Uitti, James reminds them of “their own painful experience at the hands of the wealthy … In their own treatment of the poor, James’s readers are endorsing the domination system of the powerful and rich …Their partiality for wealth sets them at odds with the essence of faith. James does not want the oppression generated by secular social structures to impose itself upon the moral values of the church” (emphasis mine).[4]

We run the same risk today, of allowing ‘oppression generated by secular social structures’ to dictate our moral values. We don’t like to think about the ways our treatment of the poor actually keeps them poor, and dependent on our generosity or the work of government. We don’t like to think about making a deeper commitment to helping them learn new skills and habits that will break the cycle of poverty, because we would rather spend a few dollars to provide handouts than invest our time and energy in building relationships.

James is warning us, as much as he was warning his first century audience. Instead of following the world’s value system, a system that often makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, James reminds us of the ‘royal law’ that goes back to Leviticus. Love your neighbor as yourself.

This is the central idea of Jesus’ teaching. Love God first, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two primary rules for life (Matthew 22:40). In order to love our neighbors, we have to spend time with them, get to know them, live in close proximity to them.

This brings us to another place where we can stumble into sin. Loving our neighbor isn’t always difficult; sometimes it’s loving ourselves that catches us up short. We don’t want to be labeled as narcissists. We don’t want to be accused of thinking too highly of ourselves.

In his letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Paul writes, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).

So we are careful to practice a kind of humility that isn’t actually humble at all. J. D. Walt writes, “According to Scripture, the opposite of humility is not pride but selfishness. And therein lies the problem with our definitions. They are all self-referential. We can’t even talk about humility without somehow referencing the self. Here’s what I’m slowly learning. Humility is not about self at all. Humility is all about others. Humility is not putting yourself down. That’s false humility. Humility is about lifting others up.”[5]

And that brings us back to the ‘royal law,’ to love others as we love ourselves. It isn’t really about us at all. It’s about loving others; the ones in fine clothes, and the ones in smelly rags. No favorites – or rather, all favored.

Because when we do that, mercy triumphs over judgment. Love wins over pride. Caring brings us to mutual freedom. When we favor each person we meet, and recognize that person as someone God loves so deeply, he’d become a human just to die for them, we become part of something beyond ourselves. We become part of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to introduce.

Showing God’s favor to each person we meet does something else, too. It builds our faith into a faith that really works. As our faith grows stronger, and our love for God grows deeper, we will find that favoring one person over another makes no sense anymore.

God has showered his favor on us so that we might share it with all, rich and poor, young and old, powerful and powerless. God has no favorites, for each of us is God’s own beloved child.

[1] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/sep/1/judgment-vs-judgmentalism/
[2] https://sojo.net/about-us/our-history
[3] Peter Rhea Jones, Feasting On The Word Year B, Vol. 4, 43 and fn: Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 212-14
[4] Aaron L. Uitti, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, 41.
[5] https://www.seedbed.com/why-pride-is-not-the-opposite-of-humility-and-what-is/

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