Most kids at some point in their childhood build clubhouses. In the woods behind my childhood home, my friends and I constructed tree houses, built huts, wigwams, and tepees, and even tried to dig tunnels for underground meetings. The mention of children’s clubhouses always brings to me a whiff of nostalgia.
Most clubhouses formed by children have a set of rules. Such rules may be altered, ditched, or held sacrosanct depending on the whim of the clubhouse members. Years ago, I read about a children’s clubhouse which had a very special set of rules scribbled on the wall for everyone to see and remember. The rules were simple: “Nobody act big. Nobody act small. Everybody act medium.” It struck me that this set of rules might be useful for all congregations which claim to follow Jesus. The author of James would certainly have applauded such “rules.”
In our passage for today, James is dealing with partiality based on economic status. Such is still a problem within North American churches because we tend to be among the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population. But history reveals that partiality can also occur on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, and mental and physical capacities.
James begins with this admonition to the church: “Show no partiality!” The Greek word translated “partiality” literally means “face-taking.” Perhaps we would say “judging a book by its cover.” What is involved is looking at externals in our estimate of a person and allowing worldly standards to guide our assessment of people. James says, “Stop doing that!” and then gives an example of the way two men are received within a fellowship of believers. One man, who is dressed in splendid attire with the glitter of gold on his fingers, is shown every courtesy and consideration. Church members fall over themselves to offer him the best seats in the house. Another man who is dressed in shabby clothes, obviously poor, and certainly not of the caliber of the wealthy man is rudely told, “Stand over there” or perhaps like a house pet, “You may sit at my feet.” James says that when that attitude is demonstrated or even harbored, church members are committing a sin as serious as adultery or murder.
Partiality has always been a temptation within churches because church members too often value people according to the worldly standards of wealth, status, and power. Sometimes succumbing to that temptation is as blatant and vulgar as James’ example, but more often, the sin of partiality emerges in more subtle ways. Churches consciously or subconsciously want “their kind of people” or those whose membership would increase that church’s image in the community. I have known churches eager to make “successful” businesspersons and prominent citizens elders, deacons, and officers of the church simply because they were bigshots and hotshots in the community. Their lack of commitment to the church and their questionable discipleship were ignored. Such members are usually placed on finance committees which too often thwart any possibility for effective and generous ministry. Tragically, there are also members in the church whose commitment to following Jesus is beyond reproach, but who rarely are allowed to reach their potential within the fellowship. Why? Because they may not have impressive jobs, make enough money, boast of degrees in higher education, possess an impressive family pedigree, or maintain enviable visibility within the community.
James labels such partiality as sin. It is a sin first of all because it denies the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. James, like Paul, maintains that God has chosen those the world would reject, ignore, or despise to be recipients of the greatest gifts of God and to be fellow-heirs of Christ. Paul in I Corinthians writes: “For consider your call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” James would shout his “Amen!” to these words of Paul.
Secondly, partiality is a sin because it is contrary to the nature of God. The Greek word for partiality occurs only four times in the New Testament. In our passage for today, it refers to human beings. But in the other three passages (Romans 2:11, Colossians 3:25, and Ephesians 6:9), we are told that God shows no partiality. God, who knows all of us inside and out, loves unconditionally. In the words of Jesus, God makes the sun shine on the good and the evil and sends rain on the just and the unjust. In light of such divine grace, who are we, blundering sinners that we are, to play the silly and demoralizing game of estimating the value of persons on the basis of externals like wealth, status, and pedigree? Jesus’ mature ethic requires that we emulate God and, therefore, show no partiality.
Thirdly, partiality is a sin because it overlooks the person within. Whether partiality favors or disfavors someone, that person is violated. In James’ example, only the rich man’s appearance and possessions are loved and honored. If he were to lose his splendid garments, gold rings, fine house, and the wealth he has accumulated, he would he treated no better than the poor man. He is not valued for who he is in his heart and soul; he is valued for what he possesses. He is, in short, prostituted by the value system of others.
Many years ago, Susan and I knew a very wealthy woman in the town in which we lived. All her life, people had been sycophantic toward her, careful not to cross her and eager to agree with everything she did and said. As she entered the last phase of her life, she grieved because she did not know whether anyone actually loved her for who she was. She correctly recognized that she was “loved” for what she owned. After her death, the local college was disappointed when it did not receive a large and highly anticipated share of the woman’s financial assets. The president of the college lamented, “She was hardly worth the wait.” What a sad epitaph! I would imagine that there are many persons of wealth, status, and pedigree who wonder in the secret places of their hearts if anybody really loves them for who they are in their hearts. The sin of partiality violates a person whether that person is disfavored by rejection and abuse or favored by counterfeit admiration and recognition.
G. K. Chesterton in his book entitled St. Francis of Assisi wrote beautifully about Francis’ embrace of all humans (and even all creation) without a smidgen of partiality. The following is a quote from Chesterton.
I have said that St. Francis deliberately did not see the wood for the trees. It is even more true that he deliberately did not see the mob for the men. What distinguishes this very genuine democrat from any mere demagogue is that he never either deceived or was deceived by the illusion of mass-suggestion. Whatever his taste in monsters, he never saw before him a many-headed beast. He saw only the image of God multiplied but never monotonous. To him a man was always a man and did not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. He honored all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this: that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the rugged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown, burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernadone was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some clerical document.
Now for this particular moral and religious idea there is no external expression except courtesy. Exhortation does not express it, for it is not mere abstract enthusiasm; beneficence does not express it, for it is not mere piety. It can only be conveyed by a certain grand manner which may be called good manners. We may say if we like that St. Francis, in the bare and barren simplicity of his life, had clung to one rag of luxury; the manners of a court. But whereas in a court there is one king and a hundred courtiers, in this story there was one courtier, moving among a hundred kings. For he treated the whole mob of men as a mob of kings. And this was really and truly the only attitude that will appeal to that part of man to which he wished to appeal. It cannot be done by giving gold or even bread; for it is a proverb that any reveller may fling largesse in mere scorn. It cannot even be done by giving time and attention; for any number of philanthropists and benevolent bureaucrats do such work with a scorn far more cold and horrible in their hearts. No plans or proposals or efficient arrangements will give back to a broken man his self-respect and sense of speaking with an equal. One gesture will do it.G. K. Chesterton
(RZ Every time I remember the extraordinary life of St. Francis, I realize how far I am from his witness, not to mention how distant I am from the life and example of the Christ who inspired this medieval saint!)
Our passage ends with talk about faith and how it relates to partiality and daily living. Faith is all about the basic trust of our lives and what we depend on for our identity and security. James says faith that is only objective belief or sentimental emotion is thoroughly counterfeit. If faith were just a matter of proper belief, then the demons who know God is One (the cardinal doctrine of Judaism and Christianity) would be on the front rows in heaven. And if faith were a matter of sentimental emotion, those with an overactive hypothalamus would be singing in the celestial choirs of the angels with big crocodile tears streaming down their faces. Genuine, 24K faith is a trust that takes concrete form in the way we live our lives. Only such faith is saving.
James offers a haunting example of counterfeit faith. He says that if one of us sees a sister or brother poorly clothed and in need of food and says, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” but does not give that person what is needed for the body, our faith is dead. Regardless of what we may profess, we have no real faith, no trust in the goodness of God. If we have authentic faith in that divine goodness and grace, we would be good and gracious ourselves. We are especially tempted to embrace sentimental expressions of faith, assuming that in doing so, we have fulfilled our calling as followers of Jesus. Similar to the example from James, we may give Christmas baskets and say a little prayer for them (“God bless you. Go in peace. . . but go!”) The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard told of a rich theatre-going dowager who wept at the plight of the poor as it was portrayed on stage only to find her destitute coachmen and servant frozen to death at the end of the evening’s performance.
The Book of James is a necessary correction to all our ideas about faith being correct belief and sentimental emotion. With all his talk about partiality and counterfeit faith, James, nevertheless, is aware that God’s grace comes to us without cost or the fulfillment of legalistic requirements on our part. James too celebrates God’s everlasting and merciful grace. But he would remind us that such grace does not come without radical and profound implications for the works of love. And with that emphasis, James is on solid ground. Jesus himself said, ‘You shall know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. Thus, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
May God save us from a counterfeit faith which accepts the world’s standards of estimating the worth of others and which confuses sentimental emotions and correct dogma with committed discipleship. May we be known by a faith which works and is made effective through love. (Galatians 5:6)
At this Table, “nobody act big.” Before such gracious love offered for us, how can any of us act as though we are better than our fellow travelers in life. Before such merciful sacraments, who among us would dare strut before the Lord?
At this Table, “nobody act small.” God loves us this much. In the eyes of the Almighty, we are each priceless. Our names are everlastingly engraved on the palms of nail-scarred hands.
At this Table, “everybody act medium.” The grace offered here is the great leveler of humankind. The proud and mighty are whittled down to size by the transforming sword of truth. The low and despised are lifted up by God’s eternal “YES” overpowering all of the world’s “NOs.” We become family—sisters and brothers to each and all as we come with Jesus, our elder brother, into the presence of God—the God who calls each of us by name.
James 2:1-17 (NRSV)
2 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.