Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Prejudice and Favoritism

James 2:1-17

“How can you claim faith in Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” The example of favoritism James chooses is that of favoring the rich over the poor, which was pretty much a universal aspect of the first century world. For example, in Roman society, the laws specifically favored the rich. A person of lower class was not allowed to bring a lawsuit against a person of higher class. And there were harsher penalties prescribed in the law for people of lower classes than for the rich.

Jewish law from the Old Testament was quite unique in the ancient world in that it had texts like Leviticus 19:15 that specifically forbade showing favoritism to the wealthy in court. But it still happened, of course.

One aspect of first century life that made discrimination more obvious is that it was easy to identify a person’s wealth and class by how they dressed. That’s still true to some extent today, but obviously a wealthy person can dress in old, plain clothes and no one thinks it’s weird. But in the first century world, the rich and the nobility wore distinctive clothing and jewelry that identified them. Poor people were easy to spot, too. Since most poor people only owned one set of clothing, they were distinguished by how dirty they were. It’s hard to do the laundry when you don’t have anything to change into.

So if the rich oppressed the poor, why would anyone favor them? Well, probably for ulterior motives. If you had friends in the upper class, then presumably it would be easier for you to work your way into it. You might be able to get a loan or better employment. You would have contacts in that world you wanted to get into.

And there’s also just the “natural” tendency we human beings have to favor the “winners” over the “losers.” The rich look like winners in life.

But what about Jesus? You know, Jesus, who never had wealth or power and who was arrested and crucified for running afoul of the “winners?”

Or maybe we think the rich are blessed, favored by God. That is not true, of course. Not everyone who has wealth achieved it through hard work and intelligence or through “God’s blessing.” Some were just lucky enough to be born into wealth. Some gained wealth through greed, dishonesty, or cheating.

The wealthy might have the illusion of power and control, but that is only an illusion. Jesus said that it is the poor who are truly blessed. They are blessed because they are painfully aware of their own neediness and powerlessness. So they are more able to approach God on the right footing. No matter who we are, rich or poor, we must all come before God as those who are in need of grace and powerless to save ourselves.

Now James may have used one particular example of favoritism and discrimination, but there are many others, and his words are true of all of them. There is no basis for discrimination or favoritism on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, birthplace, age, sex, and so on. All forms of discrimination are incompatible with Jesus’ teachings and his example. All are incompatible with faith in Christ who died for all, showing no partiality. All are contrary to Jesus’ teaching when he issued his royal command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” None of us would ever want to be discriminated against, but all of us are guilty of discriminating against others in ways that are subtle or painfully obvious.

Faith in Christ requires faithfulness to his demands for right actions that arise from right beliefs. Faith without right action is “dead.” True faith is more than just knowledge of the truth or intellectual assent to the truth. True faith results in a changed life and obedience to the truth. We can’t earn our salvation, but we can live in such a way as to demonstrate that we truly believe the things we claim to believe.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we are uncomfortable with the poor is because their presence reminds us of our duty to care for the poor. It’s easier to ignore a problem when you keep your distance from it. If we’re with the wealthy, then we can feel bad for ourselves and don’t have to bother feeling bad for someone else.

But we don’t get to pick and choose where we will be faithful and where we will not be faithful. To violate one part of God’s law, such as ignoring the needs of the poor, is to violate the spirit of God’s entire law.

James gives us another example of this, which is adultery and murder. Both sound pretty bad, so perhaps we need to explain a little bit what is happening here.

James was living and writing in Judea at a time of rising nationalism. There were many who were not willing to tolerate the presence of Rome any more. Within a couple decades, it’s going to erupt into full-scale war.

Now while most people were inclined to favor the wealthy, there were some in Judea, the Zealots, who looked with great suspicion on anyone with wealth. The wealthy were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans, and as such, enemies of God. The extremists among the Zealots were the SICARII, literally, the “dagger men.” The Sicarii would carry a dagger under the cloak, and if they found the chance to murder a “wealthy collaborator,” especially in a crowded public place where they could easily escape, they would take it. Even if it meant committing murder in the Temple, which many of them did. They justified it by claiming that they were doing God’s will. But if someone suggested adultery to them, they would recoil in horror, since that was contrary to God’s law. So murder is okay; adultery is not. And James points out the obvious inconsistency of their practices.

“So in anything you say or do, remember that you will be judged by the law of love. For there will be no mercy for you if you have not been merciful to others.” God will not be mocked. Those who fail to show mercy to others demonstrate by their actions that they either do not understand or do not appreciate mercy from God.

One of the most challenging parables of Jesus is the story of the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18. That’s the story of the man who owes an enormous fortune to his lord. He can’t pay it, so he begs for mercy. And the master grants it. But then he goes out, finds another servant who owes him a small amount, and he demands the man pay it. When he can’t, he has the man thrown into jail. When the master learns of this, he throws the first servant into jail for his lack of mercy. The point of the story is that those who show no mercy to others forfeit their claim to God’s mercy.

Do our actions, our words, our attitudes toward ALL people, those who are like us and those who are not, demonstrate that we have a claim on God’s mercy?

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