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When we meet in person, we share our joys and concerns with each other. If you have prayer requests to share, you can add them to the comments on this post. When you are ready, use this prayer to get started.
Lord, we know that there have been times when we have turned away from people who were dirty or difficult, times when we wished they would have remained invisible to us. In our minds, we have assigned blame for people’s poverty or addiction, and we have even treated them as less than ourselves. On the other hand, we clamber after those who are like us. We enjoy and admire those who fit into our economic and social class, those who we believe will make good additions to our church, and so we treat them better and welcome them more warmly.
Help us, Father, to love as you love. Help us to take special care to love the poor, those who are difficult, those who are hurting and needy, those who different from us racially, politically and spiritually, because we know they are our neighbors, too, and we know that you love them just as you love us.
In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
Today's lesson is on James 2:1-12.
When I was a child, there was a popular comedy team named “The Smothers Brothers.” They were real brothers, Tom and Dick Smothers, and part of their routine involved bickering back and forth until, in frustration, Tom would yell out, “Mom always liked you best!”
It wasn’t really a response to the argument at hand. It was really just a humorous expression of the tensions that were —supposedly — going on underneath it all. Jealousy based on favoritism.
Somehow I always think of that routine when I read these words from the second chapter of James.
The author of this book is believed to be the brother of Jesus. He was not one of the original disciples, but after Jesus’s death, James had become the leader of the Jerusalem church, which served as the mother church for congregations throughout the Roman world. In fact, it was James who led the meeting of the famous Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, where church leaders decided not to burden Gentile converts with following the Jewish law.
In this section of his letter, he addresses another problem that had come up in some of the churches. The problem was favoritism. And it is something that should not happen in the church, either in early Christian times or today.
Problem identified (verses 1-4)
James opens up this section with a sort of thesis statement: Believers must not show favoritism. Why? First of all, because God is our Father, and God does not show favoritism. Therefore we should emulate God in the way we treat each other, especially since through Christ we are also brothers and sisters.
We may not be “real brothers,” like Tom and Dick Smothers, but we are brothers and sisters in a spiritual sense through Christ. And with God as our Father, we are loved beyond measure.
Next James illustrates how partiality might play out in the church. An obviously wealthy man comes into the church, and a dirty, poor man wearing ragged clothes also comes in. The temptation is to treat the wealthy man with more deference because that is the way he is used to being treated outside the church. At the same time, the host might treat the poor man with less hospitality, possibly thinking that there is nothing wrong with treating him the way he is treated outside the church.
In Leviticus 19, God gives Moses a series of laws that define how holiness should be lived out in everyday life. One of those laws, in verses 15, states, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” In other words, people should not favor others because they are rich or poor, but they should judge them impartially.
When people of faith treat discriminate against others, James says, they become “judges with evil thoughts.” That is, they either miscarry justice simply because they value one class of people (usually the rich and powerful) over another, or they show favoritism toward the wealthy because they want to get something from them in return.
Problem evaluated (verses 5-7)
In the next section, James goes deeper into just why favoritism is wrong for those in the church.
First, James gives a positive reason. He points out how, in the kingdom of God, God reverses the world’s value structures. Oftentimes it is those who are poor in the estimation of the world whom God has endowed with more faith and more spiritual wealth.
In the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, Jesus spoke of how the kingdom of God differs from the kingdom of this world. The scriptures often remind us of God’s preference for the poor, and they often show how God has chosen poor and weak people to do extraordinary things for God’s kingdom. So God has seen fit to elevate the poor, and the church should try to reflect those kingdom values.
Not only that, but James goes on to point out that it was the rich who were dishonoring and exploiting those in the church. So, simply as a matter of common sense, why were people in the church treating them as though they deserved special honor?
We can see the same thing happening today. Why do so many people eagerly follow the lives of celebrities, even when they proudly display selfish and egotistical lifestyles and even spout hate-filled and racist words? Just because a person may be able to act or sing or play music or acquire a great deal of money, that is no reason to be captivated by their personas. Christians are to follow those whose lives offer a completely different example, an example of humility and love for others.
As an extension of that argument, James says that the rich and powerful were also “blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong.” The dictionary defines blasphemy as showing disrespect, by words or actions, to something that is considered holy or sacred. According to the Sunday school lesson, James may be referring to rich people who oppressed the poor but who pretend to be godly, but it also points out that not all wealthy people then or now fall into this category.
Problem’s solution (verses 8-12)
The way to avoid falling into a trap of favoritism is to follow “the royal law,” which is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. If you understand that everyone is your neighbor — as Jesus poignantly illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan — you will treat everyone, regardless of their worldly status, equally with love and respect.
This rule did not start with Jesus. Jesus took this commandment from the book of Leviticus, and the law of Moses excluded showing favoritism. Therefore, to show favoritism is to be a lawbreaker and a sinner. “Discrimination,” the lesson says, “is a failure to love, and love is at the core of the law of Christ.”
At its heart, the law was not simply a set of rules to follow. It was a way to show people how to love each other in practical ways during that period of history. And that is why James concludes this section by telling his readers to speak and act as people who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.
When we think of laws, we naturally think of regulations and rules that restrict us from doing something or that require us to do something else under threat of punishment. But James says the laws of the Bible are meant to give us freedom.
That is because they free us from our sinful tendency to be selfish and self-destructive, and they free us to live the best lives we can live. Therefore, obeying them brings us true freedom. So as much as we can, we should attempt to live our lives according to Christ’s law of love.
Today’s text is justly famous for the specific sin that it identifies and condemns. Discrimination grows out of our fallen human nature — a nature that is drawn to wealth and status, or at least proximity to it. Everyone is subject to its allure, and we all can think of instances when the temptation has been present for us. James’s teachings are, therefore, for us as well as for his initial readers. May we take this lesson as an encouragement to examine the patterns of our lives and to root out prejudice, replacing it with love.
Father, may your Holy Spirit teach us to see those who walk the earth with us as you see them. As we do, deliver us from the sins of partiality, prejudice, and preference. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Questions for discussion:
This week's benediction is from the King James Version.
Next week's lesson will be on 1 Peter 2:1-10.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.