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Favoritism, Mercy, and Dead Faith
September 05, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Mark 7:24-37 James 2:1-17
Last week, it was clear that we don’t like fakes.
But not far behind our dislike for fakes, is our dislike of favoritism. You know what I mean. As kids, we knew who Mom’s favorite was (it was me), we knew who the teacher’s pet was, we’ve seen favoritism in nearly every group to which we belonged, from sports teams, to marching band, to our employment as adults with brown nosers, suck-ups, and other sycophants. Sometimes we don’t mind as much when the favoritism is earned and the favorite is genuinely exceptional, but when it’s just politics and ego it can be ugly.
But what would you say if I told you that God plays favorites?
But the way that God plays favorites may surprise you.
For background, let’s begin with a sampling of verses from Proverbs 22 (Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23).
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all.
8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
9 Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
While we recognize that the Proverbs are an expression of common wisdom and not the promises of God, these are powerful and sensible words. A good name is more valuable than riches. Favor is better than money. Regardless of who is the favorite, we all have common ground because God is the creator of both the rich and the poor. Whether you call it God, or karma, or something else, the people who spread injustice and anger seem to always find calamity and failure rather than prosperity and comfort. And in the same line of thinking, we often find that the people who spend their lives giving of their time and their money to others are the ones who are blessed by God.
The guideline for us as we think about these things is that God really does take sides. God takes the side of the poor. He pleads their case in court and champions their cause in the public square. Anyone who robs the poor or crushes the afflicted discover that they stand against God. We see this demonstrated throughout Jesus’ life and ministry and we find several examples of this in Jesus’ journey recorded in Mark 7:24-37.
24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesusordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Jesus was sent to seek and to save the lost children of Israel. His mission was with the Jews, but he meets an immigrant woman who begs him to save her daughter. Jesus argues that she isn’t a part of his mission and that the children to whom he was sent should be fed first, but her response shows that she understands Jesus’ true power. She knows that Jesus’ power was so great that healing her daughter will not take power away from the Jews any more than losing crumbs to the dogs under the table starves the children who sit at the table above them. And so, Jesus takes the side of the underdog, casts out the demon, and heals her daughter.
We see something similar in the next story. The Decapolis were ten cities built by the Greeks and were, largely, cities of Greek influence and culture. And for that reason, we don’t know the religious affiliation of the deaf man, but there’s a good chance that he wasn’t Jewish. But regardless of his religion, being both deaf and having a speech impediment, he was almost certainly impoverished. It would have been difficult, or impossible, for him to earn a decent living. He could do nothing for Jesus, and there was no benefit to Jesus for helping him. But Jesus heals him anyway.
These stories provide us insight and balance to our understanding of the mission, mind, and heart of Jesus and allow us to understand him better. Yes, Jesus did miracles for rich people and for powerful people, but he also, often, did miracles for people who could offer nothing to him in return. If we were to count how many rich people Jesus helped and compared that to the number of poor people that Jesus helped, we would see that it was far more common for Jesus to help the poor.
That kind of favoritism is echoed in the writings of Jesus’ brother James in James 2:1-17 where he says:
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James writes in reaction to people in the church that are favoring those with nice clothes over those who wear dirty clothes. They give preferred seating to people who could do something for them rather than the people who could do nothing for them. They preferred the rich and the powerful over the poor and the common. But James reminds them that God always favors the poor, the downtrodden, the outsiders, the sick, the hungry, the dirty, the outcasts, and just about everyone who, by definition, can’t do anything in return for his generosity, mercy, and compassion. James says that by favoring the rich and the powerful the people of the church violate God’s command to love their neighbor. Rather than judge the poor for being poor, James says, we are called instead to show compassion and mercy.
It’s great to have faith. It’s important, and wonderful, and vital to have faith.
But faith that lacks mercy is dead faith.
Faith that sees the poor and wishes them well, but does nothing to bring them warmth, comfort, and full bellies, is dead faith. Faith that spreads injustice and anger and robs the poor is not only dead faith but stands in opposition to God and invites God’s judgement.
God really does take sides. God takes the side of the poor. He pleads their case in court and champions their cause in the public square. And to do any differently is to invite the judgement of God.
Scripture, the teachings of God, and the witness of Jesus Christ are united, and they are clear. We should play favorites. But our choice of favorites had better be the same as those of scripture, of God, and of Jesus. And our neighbors stand as witnesses to our faith, not by the faith that we have in our hearts, but to the faith that we show them on the streets.
Let us pray that our faith will be lived out in mercy, compassion, and love so that the world will know that mercy triumphs over judgement.
*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.