My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, 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 dishonoured the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
(James 2:1-10, 14-18 ESV)
Martin Luther regarded the book of James as an ‘epistle of straw’ because for him it did not reach the heights of the Gospel according to John or Paul’s epistles especially Romans. For Luther, James did not depict clearly and powerfully Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil nor how Jesus gave us his life, righteousness, and salvation. I suspect Luther reacted to James because he was tired of hearing rules and long lists of all the things he had to do as a friar and what Christians of his day were obligated to do. Luther’s criticism of the Church didn’t exclude doing the right thing but he was concerned that people had forgotten why. Rules, regulations, and human effort had become the dominant feature of the Christianity Luther encountered and his proclamation of the Gospel put Jesus and the cross back at the centre.
James is a practical letter with specific lifestyle points and it assumes, states quietly, and does not make a big song and dance over the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. The letter goes straight for practical Christianity in the face of trials and hardships. It doesn’t help that James uses the word ‘faith’ to mean talk or empty words or hot air and he uses the word ‘works’ to mean a living faith in Jesus. At first glance it might seem that James is saying that Christians work their way to heaven and faith is not enough. A second and a proper glance shows this is not the case for the very point of James is that belief in Jesus, trusting Jesus, being in a relationship with Jesus will impact the way we live and behave – because talk is cheap.
Our 2nd reading this morning speaks against the practice of playing favourites among the believers particularly on the basis of wealth. Previously James had spoken about perseverance and resisting temptation (1:12-18), we are to listen more than speak, don’t get angry, and put our faith into action especially by helping widows and orphans (no social services or welfare state back then). We are not to live as the world lives (1:19-27). After this reading, James advises his readers to tame their tongue (3:1-12) and to be wise in how we live especially as we are to be compassionate and peace makers (3:13-18). The remaining chapters (4 and 5) have practical advice for living in the world and for one’s spiritual life.
In Acts, we sense the vibrancy of the Early Church and we know that Jesus did not leave his Church the fine print about discipleship. Many of Paul’s letters and this letter of James is written into situations when people have taken the gift of the Gospel and either become slack – Jesus loves me so I can do what I want or do nothing – or become focused on human achievements and deeds. Both responses by-pass Jesus and the cross – one turns him into the spiritual equivalent of Linus’ blanket (think Charlie Brown) and the other turns him into a new law giver (Moses 2.0). Both would take our eyes away from the cross and Jesus as both Lamb of God our sacrifice and as Son of God, our Lord and Saviour.
The Gospel cuts across all the stratification in Jewish and Roman and Greek society and the Church had to work out what it meant when people who didn’t usually associate with each other started to find themselves rubbing shoulders in the early churches. Previously people associated on the basis of family, trade, wealth, and nationality but with Jesus as the glue or bond Jews and Gentiles started mixing, women and men were also meeting in ways previously not considered possible, and it might even happen that a male slave might commune at the same table as a wealthy woman and as a soldier from the barracks. Just as Christians were rumoured to drown babies and be cannibals, they were rumoured to seek the collapse of the moral order and participate in orgies (remember that the meal surrounding Holy Communion was called the ‘αγάπη meal’ or ‘love feast’ where you have men and women, with no apparent ‘good’ reason for association, sharing a ‘kiss of peace’ and a ‘love feast’).
James targets the reaction of some in the Church to the presence of wealth. It’s easy to fawn over the “haves” as opposed to the “have-nots” because you never know whether some of their wealth will rub off or fall your way. And it’s also easy for the wealthy to expect such attention. James says simply “don’t play favourites” and he cites two reasons: 1. such action reveals corruption and lack of care for the person who has been reduced to a walking bank balance; and 2. such action is sin for you break God’s Word to you. And to immediately counter the thought or retort that this is a “little sin” – not a “biggie” like murder or adultery – James reminds his readers that those who break one part of God’s law are guilty of breaking it all.
This of course seems hardly fair and I wouldn’t encourage it in families or as a basis for our judicial system.
So you’re home 5 minutes late – well, that’s it – I’m disciplining you for lateness, rebelliousness, laziness, and being rude (because you’re looking aghast!).
Prisoner X, you’ve been found guilty of shoplifting and I sentence you to life imprisonment not be released for I’ve just added to your crime sheet every crime that has come before me this year. Now be thankful, I could have punished you a lot more!
We learn quickly that if people are going to be punished irrespective of the event then you might as well be done for sheep as for a lamb. This message about how God views sinners and sin should immediately alert us to the truth that the law cannot save us. We can’t work our way to heaven; we are not good enough; God’s standard is beyond us – “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The law crushes and condemns and we don’t need a reminder when we’re ashamed or fearful of what will happen but it needs to be brought home to us when our actions are small in our eyes – everyone’s doing it – for goodness sake, God, I could be a lot worse. By nature, we don’t face sin well, we do poor self diagnosis, so God reminds us of sin’s seriousness and its effects on others – especially when we’re feeling rather blasé about the whole thing.
Favouritism? You’re worried about favouritism when I could have smacked the poor man in the head and robbed the rich! Get a grip, God!
So called little things can also create chaos and hurt and misery and we know it when we’re on the receiving end. However when it is our lifestyle, our little habits, our way of doing things that come into question then it is easy to talk, excuse, and give reasons for why we should be ‘let off’. To use extremes, we might fight against murdering someone but regard our verbal put downs as acceptable because we could do worse or we work at not having an affair but are careless in internet surfing or we wouldn’t rob a bank or our boss but a bit of loose accounting here and there especially if the government is involved is fair game. Favouritism can still ruin churches today when we hope to get something from others or ease for ourselves.
And James brings all Christians back to the reality that if Jesus is part of our lives – if we say – however much we struggle at times – that Jesus loves me – that he is Lord (my Lord) – then this faith has something to say to each situation, sin, scene, no matter how ‘big’ or ‘small’ they may be. Jesus is Lord over all of our lives – not to ruin us or cause us misery – but to give us life in every circumstance. Jesus is not just for Sundays or for ‘big’ sins or for parking spots and other miracles but for you – every moment of every day; even in the so called ‘little’ things of life.
Jesus helps us live so that those around us are blessed and helped in the big and little things of life – and so are we.
- James 2:1 - 18