Wednesday, May 15, 2013

James 2 - Discrimination Against the Poor Perverts True Faith

It is a miraculous thing indeed, me hearties, this grace of God in which we share. In the shadow of the cross we receive forgiveness for our sins, and in the empty tomb, new life. Our beings are transformed and our lives are empowered by the Holy Spirit of God from that time onward.

Since it would be a foolish thing indeed to ever imagine that we could have produced such a miracle by our own strength and effort, James' direction at the beginning of the second chapter of his epistle should really be assumed.

James 2:1 (NIV)
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism.

We've been purchased from our old world, with its prejudice and class and corruption of power. We've been made equal citizens in the Kingdom of God. Chains shall he break for a slave is now a brother or sister. In Jesus' name all oppression shall cease.

What foolishness would tempt us to live like the old world, giving or taking meaningless marks of value on persons bought at the immeasurable price of God's own Son?

Another translation says this:

James 2:1 (ESV)
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

This faith we hold is a gift. We didn't earn it. We didn't win it. It was not bestowed by any special merit of our own.

Ephesians 2:6-9 (ESV)
And (God) raised us up with (Christ) and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

We couldn’t earn it. We couldn’t work for it. We’re living in the "immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus". This gift of faith we hold, is faith in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:5-8 (ESV)
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus the Messiah was known in his day as Jesus from Nazareth. As a Nazarene, Jesus had first hand experience with prejudice. Nazareth was a small, rural town in a disrespected, multiethnic, "wrong-side-of-the-tracks" region called Galilee.

When Nathanael, Jesus' future disciple, first hears Jesus is from Nazareth, he responds, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV)

Unbelieving religious people that wanted to discourage followers among them did so by calling them Galileans.

John 7:52 (ESV)
They replied, "Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee."

(But they were wrong. Prophets Jonah, Elijah, and others all come from Galilee. They’re using their “superior” knowledge of scripture, and the people’s ignorance, against them.)

Even after Jesus major, well-known and popular ministry, after his death and resurrection, the disciples were confronted with this same racism after their first sermon.

Acts 2:7, 12, 13 (ESV)
And they were amazed and astonished, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?"
...And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine."

Jesus lived most of his life as an unremarkable man, humble, poor, born in a stable, working class, from a disrespected regional group, and died as a criminal. That’s who we follow.

It is inconsistent and hypocritical for Christians, followers of Jesus, to make judgments or discriminate against anyone based on outward appearances and differences.
Christians believe that all benefits of our faith can come only as a gift based on God's love alone.  

Favouritism is against the very core of our faith.

James, Jesus' brother, would have also felt the sting of this prejudice his entire life. He continues in chapter two to describe an example of how partiality could be applied. It may very well have been from personal experience that he used this example.

James 2:1-4 (ESV)
For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

In the original Greek we have an even sharper image of the disparity between these two individuals. The "fine clothing" of the first man can also be translated "shiny". The "shabby clothing", means dirty, as we'd imagine, but it also implies excrement.

The difference between the shiny person and the (ahem) "shabby" person is outward and obvious.

Of course, James' question is rhetorical. If you discriminate, then you have become judges with evil intention.

What intentions would we have to favour one group over another?

Consider . . .
somebody smelly, or poor, or (insert commonly prejudged ethnicity here).
Or disabled.
Or loud.
Or awkward.

What group do we discriminate against?
Why do we do it
Selfishness? Fear? Pride?

To place some special value or distinction on one group of people over another is wrong. James calls it evil.

James 2:5-7 (ESV)
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
But you have dishonoured the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

The rhetorical question in verse five should not be missed.

God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him.

God has chosen those 
who are poor in the world 
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,
which he has promised to those who love him.

Remember the powerful and challenging verse immediately preceding this chapter.

James 1:27 (ESV)
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

(Click here for more on James 1:27)

God hears the cry of the oppressed.

Exodus 2:23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.

Exodus 3:9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.

God calls himself “The God who brought you out of Egypt” dozens of times throughout the Old Testament, more often than any other name or title. God self-identifies as the emancipator of slaves.

A zine about social justice in the Bible with verses about God favouring justice for the poor and oppressed alone, would have to be at least twenty pages long.

(Click here for an example.)

Deuteronomy 10:17-18 (ESV)
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 

Exodus 22:22-24 (ESV)
You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.

Don’t mess with the poor.
God cares about the poor.

When we judge the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, and treat them as valueless or not worth helping, we are going the exact opposite direction that God is, and we need to repent.

Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." "Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?" Then he will answer them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

When we move toward the poor and the lonely, we move where God is moving. We agree with the things that God does, and we follow God's desires.

When we move toward the poor and the lonely, we move toward Jesus himself. Do you want to see Jesus? Look into the face of the woman asking you for money downtown.

When you become a follower of Jesus, his spirit unites with yours. By serving “the least of these” we have the opportunity to minister to Jesus, through Jesus. This is the evidence of a follower of Jesus.

The longer you know Jesus, the more you should be loving, serving, and surrounded by marginalized people who need justice. This is what a Christian looks like.

Why would we spend time with shiny, popular people who make fun of Jesus or faith rather than poor people for whom God desires justice?

We prefer them because we hope to receive their favour. We favour them hoping they’ll favour us. We want to be shiny, too.

If we’re trying to gain riches or favour from shiny people, we don’t truly believe we’ve received it from God (Ephesians 2:6-9). We’re not acting like God’s word is true. We’re not caring about the things God cares about. We’re putting this temporary favour ahead of God’s truth. We’re lawbreakers.

James 2:8-9 (ESV)
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Love your neighbour as yourself.

Who is my neighbour?

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus answers that question with the parable of a Samaritan who stops to help a man beaten on the side of the road after a religious man and another man of high position have passed him by.

The Samaritans were a hated group of people. Jesus chose a Samaritan because of the common racism against them. What if he'd chosen to describe a Cree person, the commonly overlooked and oppressed group in our region

Jesus could have described a Palestinian. In fact, he did. Samaria is in the West Bank, so the Good Samaritan in Jesus' story is a Palestinian.

If there is a certain people group that you particularly dislike, or have difficulty being around, or are less likely to have compassion for, start seeking them out. As you begin serving them and loving them as God does, you will begin to see in their faces the true face of Jesus.

James 4:14-17 (ESV)
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Let us live a life of faith that matters.

Let us have faith in the one who placed all riches aside to rescue us.

Let us share in the riches of freedom by living in justice and equality with everyone, everywhere, without partiality.

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