Background Scripture: James 2:1-13 Devotional Reading: Romans 3:8-14
James 2:1-13 is difficult to translate, but all too easy to understand. The King James rendition is somewhat obscure: “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” The RSV is somewhat clearer: “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ…” The New Interpreter’s Bible makes it a question: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our Lord Jesus Christ?” – as does the Twentieth Century New Testament and The Living Bible. The New English Bible and the Phillips translation pose it as a command: “My brothers, believing as you do…you must never show snobbery…” and “Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ!” Thus: prejudice and Christian faith cannot be combined. We may think we can have both, but we cannot.
Well, that’s what is supposed to be. But for more than 2000 years many have preached whipped cream and lived skim milk: Jewish Christians against Gentile converts, Roman Catholicism versus Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestants fighting Roman Catholics, Anglicans suppressing both, and today Evangelicals against everyone else. (Incidentally, although the American press continues to perpetuate it, by definition of the Greek word “evangel,” all Christians who base their discipleship on the Good News of Jesus Christ are “Evangelicals.”)
James also shines his light upon a perpetual scandal within Christendom: “For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing, and say ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2:4). Sometimes it’s not a matter of “evil thoughts” but of not thinking at all – another evil. Some of us have witnessed acts of Christian prejudice that are unfortunately accepted as “the way things are.” Demons at our doors?
There is, however, an even more distressing phenomenon that stains our Christian witness. Not only do we not know what to do with those “persons” who we don’t seem to be able to fit into our congregations, going deeper than making a place for them in our church life is the sin of demonizing “the poor,” the very people of whom James speaks: “Listen my beloved brethren, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor” (2:6). “The poor” appear to be mentioned more frequently in the entire Bible than any other societal group.
“Poor” occurs 60 times in the Old Testament alone. It also may indicate: “the humble and meek,” “the weak and powerless,” “unfortunate ones” and the “hapless,” “dispossessed” and “destitute.”
Speaking in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus proclaimed his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”(Lk. 4:18). Jesus saw “the poor” as not just those without sufficient material goods and means, but people who are in need of various kinds of help for survival and healing.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus makes it clear that, like the stranger whom no one fed, gave no drink, did not clothe, and failed to visit in sickness or prison, is as though they had denied this very aid to Jesus himself. Asked when they failed to do these things for him, Jesus answers: “…as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” What the Bible says
Christians often condemn people whom they believe are undeserving. But they may fail to realize that nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus counsel his followers to help only those who are worthy! Yet, this is a test that lots of us want to apply to those who are in need. We may vigorously proclaim that “these poor are getting only what they deserve,” but none of us should ever prod God to give us “what we deserve.” Knowing that I should do to others only what I would want them to do to me, I must not deny these “undeserving” what I myself do not deserve.
Our culture, not our Christian religion, is the basis of many of our attitudes regarding the poor: the “good guy” gets, the “bad guy” doesn’t. So, if someone is in need, they probably deserve what they get, or don’t get. So why should we spend our money that is always “hard-earned.” Notice, too, that the money I want to withhold is “my money,” contrary to the stewardship premise that acknowledges that all we have and are belongs to God, not ourselves.
Whenever I hear Christians grousing about benevolence, I wonder if we do not realize that in helping those in need, we also help ourselves? If we do a better (much better) job of educating poor children, we contribute to our own society, making it safer and more compatible than what we have. Prof. Joerg Rieger, a native of Germany now teaching theology in the USA, has written: “As people of my generation in Germany have asked our parents and grandparents about their relation to the death of six million Jewish people, future generations will ask us about the deaths of nearly 12 million children each year, and even well-meaning theologians will not be spared.” Have you given thought to how you will answer?