Last week James implored his readers to do more than just hear the Word of God but to put it into action and live it. There are many ways to do this but the way that James mentions is through helping the poor and the oppressed. This serves as a transition into his next set of thoughts as we move in James 2.
Presumably we understand the idea of helping the poor even if we have difficulty putting this into action. For this reason we won’t spend a whole lot of time on the first part of our passage this morning.
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 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,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
One would think that no one here would do such an obvious act of favoritism but often it is subconscious in the way that we act. Some of it comes down to the fact that we feel more comfortable around people that we perceive to be like ourselves. We naturally want to be around people who are better off than we are because we believe that there might be something to gain from being around them.
If two families came into our church and sat down, one dressed well and the other looking like they were down to our last dollar, we might not treat them a whole lot differently. We’d say hi to both and try to make them feel accepted. But what if I told you that for some reason we only had a chance to keep one of these two families with us next week? Our natural tendency would be to reach out more to the family that presumably had more money because they could presumably help us more when it came to offering.
Our thinking could even be well intentioned. If we bring in a family with money, that will allow us to spend more money on outreach and to be able to help more people and reach out to families that really need the church. I might be completely wrong, but I think that our natural tendency would be to try to reach the family with money first.
I’ll tell you a story of an old lady that I used to visit in the nursing home. This lady was in her 90’s and never had any children. Her husband had passed away some time ago. I’m not big on visiting nursing homes, not because I dislike them – not that I know too many people who like being in them – but more because of the circumstances. Unless the person went into the nursing home while I was pastoring, they really don’t know me. I’m just the guy who pastors the church that they used to attend, in some cases twenty years ago. I was in elementary school the last time they were at church. And so there is really no connection to me whatsoever.
This particularly lady was very nice to talk to and for being about 95 seemed to be very sharp mentally. More importantly, somebody from the church talked to her everyday. Somebody that she knew and who would be an important connection to the church. Way more important than just some guy who had stopped in to see her a few times.
So for these reasons, I just didn’t get around to visit too often. If I was in the area and had some extra time I would stop in but how often does that really happen? Probably the second or third time that I visited her, she gave me a check for the church. I accepted it and dropped it in the offering plate that Sunday. The next time I visited she also gave me a check. By the third time she gave me a check, my curiosity got the better of me. I don’t visit people with the expectation that they’ll give to the church. I don’t expect little old ladies in a nursing home to have much to give to the church and frankly if she gave twenty dollars that was great and could very well be more than she had to spare.
The check was for a thousand dollars. I honestly wondered if she had that much money to give. Now as I said, I didn’t get around to seeing her that often. But if she had given me a check for a thousand dollars previously this would still mean that she had given three or four thousand dollars in a year’s time. I don’t know what individuals give. That number never reaches me and I have no desire to know. But I also know that there are plenty of regular church attenders who don’t give that much in a year’s time.
What I’m left with is a bit of a conundrum in line with what James is writing about. I’m not going to visit this lady more often with hopes that she keeps giving me checks every time I stop by. But on the other hand, I feel as though I should visit more often because this is the least I can do if she’s giving more money than a number of regular attenders. It’s not about the money. This is a lady who is genuinely interested in the church but just is unable to be there any longer whereas there are plenty of people who come to church and aren’t genuinely interested in what goes on.
This story is just an illustration that even though we want to treat people equally, it isn’t as easy as it may seem at times.
Listen, my dear brothers: 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? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
These verses sound like they were written by a modern day liberal politician. It is no secret that we are to look out for the poor and less fortunate than ourselves. The problem becomes determining who is truly needy and who is taking advantage of the system.
We have hundreds of thousands of people if not millions of people who are in danger of losing their homes because they lost their jobs in the midst of this bad economy. They bought a house some time ago and they can’t afford it because they have no income. This is pretty cut and dry that these are not bad people, just people who had a bad break in life.
Then there is another group of people who signed a contract and then saw their payments increase as a result of that contract. Now they are crying that this is unfair because they are expected to hold to the terms that they agreed upon. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe for a moment that the banks are victims in this situation but if I sign a contract I have an obligation to understand it. If I’m going to commit a large portion of my life into paying off a bill I’m going to know what I’m paying this year, five years from now, and thirty years from now when I’m finishing my payments.
One group of people is in danger of losing their house because of a bad turn in the economy. A second group is in danger because they signed a bad contract that they didn’t understand and now don’t want to hold to. And it’s virtually impossible to help those who need help without helping those who were foolish because there is no way to distinguish between the two from the top.
Personally, we don’t have unlimited resources and we can’t help every cause that seems worthy. As a church we don’t have unlimited resources and we can’t help everywhere that there is a need. And as a government we’re finally realizing that we don’t have unlimited resources. This means that every dollar that goes to helping somebody who bought a house that they knew they couldn’t afford and who now wants the government to step in and help is a dollar that can’t be spent to help someone who has a genuine problem.
I don’t know if the problem was easier to deal with in biblical times or not but at least then it was pretty easy to tell if a person didn’t have food and needed some. Today it is hard not to wonder if a person doesn’t have food because they spent their money on an addiction and by helping them you’re only enabling an addiction and making matters worse. We’re called to help but it hard to know where to start or who genuinely needs it.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
This is where I really wanted to spend my time this morning. This goes deeper than finances. Let’s hit the easy points of this passage first.
To start, this does not say “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Technically that phrase is biblically but it is taken terribly out of context from the gospels. Nowhere in the Bible are we taught to turn a blind eye to sin. The point of this passage is to remind us that we’re all in the same boat. We’re all sinners.
Now, let’s dig down a level deeper. James’ point is that sin is sin. Sin separates us from God. Sin needs to be forgiven and repented from. In this regard there is no difference between sins and God doesn’t show favoritism concerning them.
There are a lot of people who think that they are getting into heaven because they’re relatively good. And because they are relatively good, because God is merciful, he won’t hold their little sins against them. But this is where the idea of favoritism comes into play. God has to be fair and He has to judge everyone fairly. And fair means that one unforgiven sin is enough to keep someone from heaven. The best person in life who hasn’t asked forgiveness of their sins is just as guilty of sin as the worst person in life.
The last class that I taught illustrates this point really well. I have a grading scale that I have to go by – 90% is an A, 80% a B and so on. I had a student that I really liked finish with an 89.93%. In other words, really, really close to an A. Now, it would be easy to say that this was close enough and grant the A. I could also use the standard practice of rounding up. But if I rounded up I had another problem. There was another student who I really liked and had also done good work. This person had something like an 89.47%. In other words, if I rounded up, this person would be 3 hundredths of a percent away from an A and they would end up getting unfairly left out. In the end, the only fair thing to do was hold to the standard. The student came close but didn’t reach the mark. If a awarded an A when they hadn’t technically earned it, it wouldn’t have been fair to the people who had worked a bit harder and put in more effort.
At the other end, I had a student who failed the class. This student had missed several assignments and didn’t participate in about half of the weekly discussions which accounted for a large part of the grade. After she had received a failing grade, she contacted me and asked me to reconsider, giving me a sob story about all of the things that had been going on and this and that. Basically she was trying to explain to me how even though she didn’t do the work and didn’t ask for help during the class, that she still deserved the credit. I didn’t waste my time responding back because frankly I wouldn’t have been nice about it.
If the student was having problems and had contacted me while there was still time to do something about it, I might have been able to work something out which would have allowed her to do the work and earn the grade. But that wasn’t the case. After the grade is handed out, it’s far too late to complain about all the circumstances that surrounded it.
I believe that God works on the same grading scale that I have. He is fair. He doesn’t give extra credit just because someone is nice or seems like they should deserve it. The standard is absolutely the same for everyone.
And after fact is way too late to complain about the grade. God is there to help us in life when problems arise but if we don’t ask for help, how is that His problem? It’s not His fault when someone “fails life” so to speak and they have not once asked for help.
God doesn’t show favoritism and neither should we. It is difficult for us when it comes to finances and probably a number of other areas to treat people equally. But God doesn’t have the same problem. He doesn’t care about economic status or race or political affiliation or anything else. God has one standard – forgiven or not. That what He is going to judge according.