“James: Generosity and Favoritism (Part 3)”
The Most Important Book We Forgot
May 10, 2015
By John Partridge
Scripture: James 2:1-26
I want you to use your imagination with me for a minute. Many of you travel from time to time, so imagine that while you are away from home, either for work or for vacation, you decide to go to church on a Sunday morning. As you pull into the parking lot you slowly begin to realize that this church might just be a little different than your church at home. At home, the parking lot is filled with Chevy’s and Oldsmobile’s but in this parking lot, while you see an occasional General Motors product, the majority of the cars are built by Lexus, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, and other high-end cars. As you enter the church, you notice that the people are dressed as expensively as the cars they drive and, although you are dressed decently, your suitcase didn’t have room for a suit and tie. And so, as you prepare to enter the sanctuary, an usher gently encourages you to head for the balcony where the youth group is sitting and you notice that the balcony also contains everyone else who is either visiting, or wearing anything less than a three piece suit or a designer dress. It is obvious that you have been seated with the less desirable elements of the church in a place that is out of sight of the regular members.
And now I ask you that question that the professors from the counselling department liked to ask in seminary…
So how does that make you feel?
At the end of last week’s message we heard James say that we should care for the widows, orphans, and others that do not have a voice in our society. In James’ world, and often in ours, these people are poor. And so, caring for the widows, orphans, and others is an issue of generosity and serves to transition us to the subject of today’s message. For James, generosity is a test of the reality of our faith, a place where faith and works collide. And as faith and works collide, how did it feel in your imagination, when you got stuck in the balcony because you weren’t good enough to mix with the regular membership?
Even in our imagination, that hurts. And more than a few of you were thinking that you would never, ever, go back again.
But more than that, James wants us to consider how it feels when it happens to others when they visit our church.
2:1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
James begins with his basic premise, his simplest assumption, that believers cannot play favorites because God doesn’t play favorites. From there, James accuses his church flock of doing exactly that. Much as I did when we began, James says, imagine that a man comes to visit your church… But to add to our understanding of this story, I want to add a few details. James tells a story that might have happened during a worship service, but might also have happened when the church elders met to judge a dispute between believers. In that story, James asks if those who have acted this way have not become “judges with evil thoughts.” These hints of judgement in the synagogue, are probably included to remind everyone of the rules for a synagogue trial because among those rules are some that mirror this story almost exactly. Jewish law required that everyone in a trial either sit at the same level or that everyone stand. No preference could be given for status or wealth. Also, both rich and poor participants had to be dressed similarly. A rich man could dress the same as a poor man, or he could pay for new clothing so that the poor man could dress the same as the rich man.
Apparently, the church (or churches) had been discriminating against the poor in exactly this way. James is also pointing out a tragic irony because rich people in that time were abusing Christians by dragging them into court and treating them with contempt because of their poverty and because of their association with Jesus Christ. And so, despite having been abused by the rich, many in the church are granting preferred treatment to the rich and abusing others just as they themselves had been abused.
James then proceeds to remind us that God loves the poor. In fact, James echoes the words of Jesus from his sermon on the plain in Luke 6:20 where he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” James wants us to remember that the poor are only poor in the eyes of the world because in God’s eyes, they are heirs of the kingdom and rich beyond measure. And so, in all of this we are reminded that the church cannot judge the way that the world judges but instead must judge others the way that God judges James suggests that by discriminating among ourselves, we have “divided ourselves” and therefore become double-minded.
James further illustrates this by quoting the “royal law” (perhaps called the royal law because Jesus also said it) from Leviticus 19:18 which says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” His point is that favoritism lacks mercy and is not loving. For James, a failure to love is equivalent to murder or adultery.
The Ten Commandments are not a multiple choice question.
Next James connects these ideas of generosity, mercy, love and favoritism, to faith and action.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish [Greek for “foolish is “kenos” which literally means “empty”] person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James introduces us to a person who is not properly dressed, probably someone who cannot afford a coat or appropriate outer covering, and who does not have enough to eat. This person is not worrying about having enough food at the end of the month, or even at the end of this week, but does not have food to eat today. For us to simply pray for food, when it is within our power to give them food and clothing, is wrong. Theologically, such a prayer is not wrong, but it lacks action. The prayer that is offered is missing the deeds that could back it up. And so James tells us that if we believe that God loves the poor but we do nothing to help them, then our faith is dead.
As a counter argument, James anticipates that someone will argue that their faith is enough, that they will say “I believe that God is one.” That argument does not immediately click for us but today we would hear something quite similar. Remember that most of those reading this letter were Jewish followers of Jesus. Every good Jew would, at least twice each day, repeat the ‘Shema’ a prayer that begins by saying, “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” It is an expression of devout faith and orthodoxy (which means right practice). The Shema is a basis of both Jewish and Christian belief but it is not enough. Something more familiar to us today would be a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, or the Nicene Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer but likewise, these are not enough. As James said, even the demons believe that God is one, and their knowledge of God makes them shudder with fear, but still, they do not have faith.
James argues that Abraham, the father of all Israel, was considered righteous because of what he did. That phrase “what he did” can be literally translated as “from his works” and understood as ‘because of a lifetime of obedience.’ Abraham’s faith was so strong that he obeyed regardless of the cost. But James anticipates another counter argument. He knows that someone will say that Abraham’s deeds grew out of his thankfulness for all the things that God had done for him and not from his faith, and in answer to that, James gives us Rahab. Rahab was not from Israel and did not receive the blessings that God had given to Israel’s people and in fact, Rahab had received nothing at all from God, and yet, she had faith. Because of her faith, she acted on her beliefs and it is her actions that reveal her faith to the world.
The weird thing here is that while James says that Abraham was proved righteous because of his works, Paul teaches that Abraham was righteous because of his faith. While there are different opinions on this, I think Paul’s point was that Abraham was righteous before the law was written and so the law could not save him. In that sense, works, according to the law, were impossible. But Abraham did have faith, and his faith produced works which proved that his faith was real.
And so, when James says that faith without works is dead, he wants us to understand something important.
It is deeds that give life to our faith.
Faith is not just an intellectual thing. It is not an issue of the mind, but has to migrate south and become an issue of the heart. If (and once) it does that, faith must, by necessity, continue its migration to our hand and feet and be lived out through our actions.
Some of the things that we must do are to show mercy, give generously, run away from favoritism and to love others the way that God loves them
We aren’t Christians simply because we say that we are. We are not Christians because we academically subscribe to a particular doctrine or statement of faith. We are not Christians simply because we go to church or because we have memorized the Apostle’s Creed.
We are Christians because we do the things that Christians do.