James 2:1-17, & Mark 7:24-37
Imagine a meeting. With all the words about courts and judges, James is probably picturing a kind of court room, a place where disputes are sorted out, maybe even between fellow Christians. So, picture the scene, the church has gathered to sort out a disagreement between two of its members. The first one arrives, looking very fine. He is wearing his best suit, and his heavy jewellery shows that this is someone to be reckoned with. He is given one of the best seats, so that everyone can see him and he can command the room. The second arrives, he’s not washed for a couple of days. His clothes are tatty and he needs a hair cut. He’s made to sit on the floor at the edge of the room. What do you think the chances of a fair hearing are? How confident would you feel if you were the rich man sat, with everyone admiring you? How much despair would you feel as the poor man, crouching in the corner, overhearing the muttering of rude comments? What are the chances of a fair hearing? They don’t seem to be great, do they?
James then goes on to give three reasons why favouritism is wrong, why it is not to be practiced by those who believe in Jesus and follow him.
- God has chosen the people you are discriminating against for special blessing. So you’re setting yourself up against the will of God.
- The ones you are fawning to are the very ones who are attacking you and blaspheming against Jesus.
- It breaks the law that has been acknowledged as the heart of the law, a status that was reaffirmed by Jesus – love your neighbour as yourself.
Let’s look at each of these three reasons in turn.
God has chosen those you are discriminating against for a special blessing. It is the poor who have been chosen to inherit the Kingdom of God. How do we know that this is true? Well it comes straight from Jesus’ mouth. Teaching like this is recorded in the accounts of Jesus’ life in more than one place, but some of the clearest is found in the account written by Luke, in chapter 6:
“Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
The first reason that favouritism is wrong is that it goes against God’s purposes and will. It is no good praying the Lord’s prayer, “Your will be done, your Kingdom come” if we are doing things that we know are against God’s will and which attack those to whom the Kingdom is promised.
The second reason is that it betrays the King of the Kingdom, and fails to follow him faithfully. In the example that James gives, the people who were being favoured were the very ones who were attacking the people of God and denying Jesus.
In the next bit of that chapter in Luke, Jesus goes on to talk about what his followers should do when they are attacked:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man."Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”
Jesus does say that his followers will be blessed when they are insulted and put down by those who want to attack him. He does say that they should rejoice, because they know that in heaven, in the Kingdom of God, they will have a reward, and that it will more than outweigh the pain and the suffering that is inflicted on them. He does NOT say that they should try to get out of the persecution by betraying the values of the Kingdom in favour of those who are attacking it.
Jesus died on a cross so that God’s Kingdom could be established. Those who follow Jesus follow him on the way of the cross. That way is one that is marked by suffering and pain. At the end there is new life forever, with Jesus in his resurrection. Jesus could have avoided the cross by showing favour to the religious and political leaders, but he didn’t because he values all people the same. He loves us all so much that he died for us. We are called to follow his example.
The third reason is that it breaks the royal law. James points out that favouritism does not demonstrate loving our neighbour as ourselves. If I show favouritism then I am showing a greater love for one neighbour than for another. So I can’t be loving them both as I love myself. I must be loving one of them less than I love myself, and so I have broken the royal law. It doesn’t let me off the hook that I have loved the first one enough; I have still broken that law.
Do you remember the most famous time that Jesus talked about this? Again we hear it at different times in Jesus’ teaching, but Luke’s account stands out for me because of the story that he told to illustrate it.
In chapter 10 of Luke’s witness story, we hear of a teacher of the law who comes to ask Jesus what the most important commandment is. Jesus answers that the first is to love God, and the second is to love your neighbour. Nothing controversial there, it was the accepted right answer. Then the teacher of the law asks another question. “Who is my neighbour?” As an answer, Jesus tells the story of a man who was travelling along a dangerous road, the desert road that leads down from the town of Jericho. As he was going he was ambushed, robbed, and left for dead. As he lies on the side of the road, bleeding, he hears someone coming. It’s a Levite, one of religious officials. He doesn’t want to risk getting blood on himself, he walks on by. The beaten man lies in the dust. He hears another person coming. It’s a temple priest, one of the men who is allowed into the Holiest place to represent the people. He doesn’t want to risk being made unclean and so unable to fulfil his religious duties. He walks on by. The dying man faints. He doesn’t hear the next person to come along. He starts to come round as his wounds are tended and he feels himself being lifted onto a donkey. He drifts in and out of consciousness as he is jolted along the track. He wakes to find himself in a clean bed, with bandages on his beaten body. Sitting next to him is a Samaritan. A foreigner, a stranger, someone who should not have touched him.
Jesus asked the teacher, who was neighbour to the beaten man? “The one who showed him mercy” said the teacher. Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise”.
Is it coincidence that Jesus uses a story condemning the evil of prejudice to illustrate the practical outworkings of the royal law and that James uses this law to condemn the evil of favouritism? I don’t think so. James is following Jesus in showing us that the true outworking of loving our neighbour, is that we are to love all people, without fear or favour, without prejudice or favouritism.
The third reason that favouritism is wrong is that it prevents us loving others as we love ourselves, as Jesus loves us.
Following on from his demonstration of how and why favouritism is wrong, James goes on to say that what Christians believe has to have an effect on how they behave, or it is pointless to believe it. He uses the example of someone who says to someone else, “be warm and well fed” but does nothing about it. That is a dead faith and worthless.
In the story of the beaten man, Jesus gives us another practical example of faith in action. This is what it looks like not to submit to favouritism. We love those who we have no business loving, and we reach out to help those who are in need.
It seems that practical outworkings are very important to James and to Jesus. If this is the case, then we need to think about the practical outworkings of the need to avoid favouritism for ourselves. This means for us as individuals in our own lives, and for us as a church, as a believing community.
Do I show favouritism? How? When? What do I do about it? What does it look like? Who do I have a preference for? Please show me Lord.
One of the difficulties here is that I think that we know that we shouldn’t be prejudiced, or show favouritism, so we don’t talk about it or even like to confess it to ourselves. We don’t like to think of ourselves as people who show favouritism. That can be good because it shows that we have got the message. But there is a problem. It can also mean that we never think about our prejudices, not because we have got rid of them, but because we don’t want to think about ourselves as people who have them.
What are we going to do about this? I believe that we need to ask God, by the Holy Spirit, to show us our prejudices and to free us from favouritism. To release us to be able to love others unconditionally. As we spend more time reading God’s word, and allowing what we find there to change the way that we think, we will find that our patterns of prejudice will change and we will see all other people as God sees them, not as the world sees them. All to be loved completely and totally.
As a church we are getting ready for Back to Church Sunday in a couple of weeks when we will be inviting all kinds of people to come and join us for a Sunday service and for brunch afterwards. How are we going to ensure that we welcome all equally? How are we going to make sure that all of our visitors are treated as special guests, and spoken to by someone? Are we all going to make a special effort to be here, and to stay for the whole morning so that we can welcome in Jesus’ name everybody who has been invited to come and be with us on that day?
I hope so, because it is as we do these things that we defeat favouritism. It is by doing these things that we love our neighbours as ourselves. It is in these things that we follow the example of our King and Saviour. It is by doing these things that we live out the will of God and show the power of the break through of the Kingdom.