Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, September 22, 2018
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The Sins of Favoritism and Discrimination

The Sins of Favoritism and Discrimination

James 2:1-13

 “How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, if you favor some people more than others?”

 That’s a challenging question.  Especially if we are willing to acknowledge that favoritism, and its sibling, discrimination, are basically universals of the human experience.  If we are not put on edge by James’ question, then we’re probably not being 100% honest about ourselves and our own tendencies toward favoritism and discrimination.  These things have no place in the Church, but they’re there.

 We probably see it most clearly in terms of favoritism and discrimination based on race or gender.  I know that these things are frequent challenges that happen in our own Conference when it comes time for appointment changes.  To this day, there are churches that say to the bishop or superintendent, “We don’t want a woman for a pastor” or “We won’t take a pastor unless they’re white.”  But I think that discrimination based on wealth might be even more prevalent, but also less likely to be confronted.

 In the cultural situation in which James was writing, discrimination based on wealth was far more likely than any other form of discrimination.  The reason is that James wrote somewhere in the mid to late 40s AD, and at the time he wrote, the Church was almost completely made up of people who had been born into or converted to Judaism.  

 The James who wrote this epistle was the brother of Jesus, not James the Apostle, who by this time had been martyred.  After Peter’s arrest, he was forced to leave Jerusalem, and leadership of the Church there fell to James.  This was before the so-called Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, where it was “officially” recognized that God had opened the Church to the Gentiles as well.  Almost all Christians were born as Jews.  Most others had converted to Judaism before becoming Christians.  Racial discrimination was unlikely to occur.  Christianity was still very much a “Jewish sect,” as we can see from the reference in verse 2 to the synagogue.  

But even though the Church was not yet dealing with the repercussions of an inclusive Gospel, it was still a difficult time.  National fervor was on the rise in Judea.  Within 20 years there would be open war against Rome.  And the church was wrestling with the implications of Jewish nationalism.  

At this time, the Church was almost entirely lower class.  The reason is that the wealthy have more to lose from becoming involved in something new, radical, different.  So they are less likely to “convert” early on in a movement.  And since they were entrenched in the current state of affairs, they were also more likely to be targets of national fervor.  Often they were seen as collaborating with Rome, and hence, viewed as enemies of their own people.  There was a group of Zealots at this time called the Sicharii, the Dagger Men.  They would often assassinate public officials and wealthy individuals who were seen as collaborators with Rome.

But there was also always the temptation to associate oneself with the wealthy in the hopes that it could lead to personal gain.  Christians who were eager for acceptance would be tempted to gain the support and favor of the wealthy.  What was the Church to do in the midst of a society where the wealthy were both held in contempt but also envied?  

In the midst of this explosive situation, James poses a hypothetical situation:  Suppose two men come into the “Christian synagogue.”  One is well-dressed, wearing expensive rings.  The other is shabby, literally “dirty.”  Most poor people only had one set of clothing.  And if you only have one set of clothes, it’s hard to do laundry.  So most poor people were easily recognized by their dirty clothes.  

The temptation was to show favor to the rich man and give him a good seat.  In the synagogue, traditionally, seating was done according to status.  The wealthy had the good seats (up front, I might add!), while the poor sat on the floor or stood in the back.  But if you were to do this, would you not be showing that you are guided by wrong motives?  That you are looking more for personal gain than for community-building?  

Does it make any sense when we remember God’s love for the poor?  God tells us over and over again in his Word that he has a special concern for those whom society tends to look down on:  The poor, the widows, the orphans, the foreigners.  It is certainly not that the poor are necessarily more faithful.  There are wicked poor people and there are faithful rich people.  And it’s just as wrong to favor the poor over the wealthy as it is to favor the wealthy over the poor.  

But faith does seem to come easier to those who have less; perhaps because they are more able to recognize their own “neediness.”  Maybe that’s our problem as Americans.  We’ve become so rich as a society that we fail to see our need for God.  

Also, let’s not forget that Jesus was poor, humble, a servant.  If we disconnect ourselves from the poor, we are also disconnecting ourselves from Jesus.

Does it make any sense to favor the rich over the poor when it is the rich who were so often oppressing Christians, most of whom were poor?  That’s pretty much a universal experience of humanity; that there is always some measure of oppression from the rich against the poor, from the powerful to the powerless.  It was very true in Roman society.  In Roman society, the penalties for crimes were harsher for the poor, and a poor person was not even allowed to bring a lawsuit against a wealthy person.  It’s unfortunately still true today in America where the wealthy have more connections to those in government, most of whom are also wealthy, and are thus able to influence laws that favor them.  

But the real heart of the issue is that favoritism violates the heart and soul of God’s desire for human relationships, Jesus’ “royal command” to love your neighbor as yourself.  A “royal command” was one that came directly from the king, and it was highest type of law in ancient societies.  

To love your neighbor as yourself is to do to others as you would desire to be done to you.  Who of us would want to be discriminated against?  Or to see someone else favored over us?  So we should not do these things to others.  

This is not some peripheral issue, out there on the edge of what it means to be a Christian.  It’s not an “optional rule.”  It’s at the heart and soul of God’s will for human relationships.  To break the law of God at one point is to break it in its entirety.  If the whole law of God regarding human relationships is summarized by that one idea, love your neighbor as yourself, then any violation of love for neighbor violates the law of God.  

James’ illustration of this principle is probably one that was very relevant to his day:  A person could not pretend to be religious because they “would never commit adultery” while at the same time committing murder.  That was probably a pretty appropriate description of the nationalist Zealots, who were, by and large, “very religious” in their personal lives, even as they were engaged in murder for a national cause.  But the whole will of God for human relationships is summarized by love, and it’s not very loving to murder.  

As Christians, we will be judged according to how we live into this law of love.  If we fail to show love and mercy, then it reveals that we have not truly received these gifts from God for ourselves.  

Is this still a problem for the Church today?  I should say so.  

We are more likely to be made aware of discrimination based on other qualities.  I know female clergy who have been told, even outright, that they are unwelcome in a church because they are not men.  Just recently, we had a pastor here in Western PA, a black woman, who was serving two churches:  one predominantly white and the other predominantly black.  She was moved because the white church was unwilling to accept her leadership.  Rev. Han was moved this past June, after only one year, and the unwillingness of some members of his church to accept a Korean pastor seems to have been the primary reason.  

But discrimination based on economics still happens in the church today too.  I’ve often heard it said that the Church in America is by and large a middle class phenomenon.  There are less lower class people in the church in America today than there are in the population in general.  Does this mean that the poor are not welcome?  I’ve heard stories of people who were made to feel unwelcome in a church because their clothes were not “nice enough.”  And very often churches give extra respect and deference to large donors, perhaps out of the fear that if they don’t receive it, they’ll leave and take their tithe somewhere else.

It’s often said that you can see class at work between the different congregations in a certain place.  Someone once said that if you started in the Baptist church and went through the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the way to the Episcopal Church, you would see the social and economic stratification in the people of God.  I imagine that’s less true today than when it was said, but I think there’s still an element of truth in it:  Some churches are built on economic lines.  

None of this should happen.  At its best, the early Church was seen as a place of radical egalitarianism, a place where there was no Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, slave or free.  That’s how the church in every time and place should be.  All persons should be welcomed as beloved of God and loved by the Church, regardless of race or gender or economics.  

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