One of the great temptations we face in this world is the temptation to go along to get along, to compromise and cut our deal with the powers that be rather than standing up against them for truth. We talked about this back in the spring as we were listening to Isaiah, about the temptation for the Jews in captivity in Babylon to give up on being Jews and just become Babylonians. After all, we don’t want trouble, and if you stand out, you’re likely to get trouble—particularly if you stand out because you’re saying “no” when somebody wants you to say “yes.” Much easier just to tell people what they want to hear and let them do what they want—that’s also why so many families are run by the kids—than it is to stand up for what’s right and face them down.
This is, of course, an age-old issue; as long as there have been rich and powerful people, there’s been the temptation for others to kowtow to them in an effort to curry favor with them. From the world’s perspective, that makes all kinds of sense: you do what you can to try to get in good with the rich and the powerful, doing nice things for them in hopes that they’ll do nice things for you in return, or at least not do bad things to you. From God’s perspective, however, that sort of behavior is nonsense; it’s judging people on the basis of all the wrong reasons, out of all the wrong motives, and you end up allying yourself with your oppressors in hopes of shifting the oppression off your shoulders and on to someone else’s. Which is not only despicable, it’s foolish. That’s why James asks, “Why do you favor the rich? Aren’t they the ones who oppress you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court and blaspheme against the name of Christ? Why would you favor them over the poor—why would you join with them in oppressing others?”
Now, I said a few weeks ago that there are two big themes in the book of James. One, there are two ways we can follow, the way of friendship with the world and the way of friendship with God, and they’re mutually exclusive. Two, the way of friendship with God makes no sense to the world; to understand it, we need a new point of view. We need to see ourselves primarily not as people of this world, but as people of the next—as those who belong to God, who are citizens of his country living in this one. In this world, the poor don’t much matter. You can help them, or you can exploit them; one might be more admirable than the other, but in the end it’s no more significant than you want it to be. They just aren’t important to society. The rich, by contrast, matter. They have influence, they have power, they have significance, and so of course you defer to them, and of course you give them special treatment, because they’re the ones who can help you or hurt you. What they think of you matters; what the poor think of you . . . doesn’t.
Such is how much of the world sees things, but it’s not how God sees things; when the church is looking at life that way, something’s wrong, and it needs to be fixed. So James holds up a mirror to them—the mirror of the royal law, which is to say, of the law of the Kingdom of God—to help them see themselves from God’s point of view, from the perspective of faith. We aren’t called to be people of this world, doing what we need to do to get ahead in this world; that’s not what it means to be doers of the word, nor is it any way to live a life that’s even remotely Christian. Instead, we’re called to be people of the Kingdom of God, living out the life of the kingdom in this world, and so bearing witness to Jesus Christ; which means making our decisions not on the basis of what will advance our careers, or make us more money, or give us more enjoyment, or help keep us safe, but on the basis of what Jesus wants us to do and how he wants us to live.
This isn’t easy. We look at the situation James describes, and the fact is, we understand it. Poor people don’t do much for the budget, and they don’t tend to attract people who will, and if you have someone walk in who hasn’t washed themselves in two weeks or their clothes in three—that being the case James is talking about—they aren’t going to be all that pleasant to have around. Most middle- and upper-class folk like the idea of helping the poor—at a distance; sharing a pew with them is often quite something else again. If a rich person shows up, though, that’s a very different matter. After all, if they like you, they just might decide to write you a nice fat check, and boom! your church budget is in the black for the year; and if they really like you, maybe they keep coming, and maybe they bring a friend or two, and maybe all of a sudden there’s money to put in a new audiovisual system, or remodel the basement, or maybe even put up a nice new addition to the building. Granted, that’s a lot of “maybe”s, but still, it’s an appealing vision—one which has sidetracked all too many churches.
To this, James says two things. First, he says, just because these people are poor in the world’s eyes doesn’t mean that’s how they look in God’s eyes, or how we should see them; from the perspective of faith, they’re rich. Why? Because God has chosen them to be heirs of his kingdom. They may not have the wealth of this world, but that’s of no real importance, for worldly riches don’t last; hard times come, and they vanish, or death comes, and they are left behind. “The rich will disappear like a flower in the field,” says James; “in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” The poor and lowly, on the other hand, God has chosen to exalt, partly as a display of his power and partly be-cause the poor have less to insulate them from God. Those who are rich can easily come to believe that they don’t need God, that they can do just fine on their own; poverty tends to strip away such illusions. As such, to honor the rich above the poor will often be to dishonor those whom God has honored, and vice versa.
Second, James tells us, “If you favor the rich over the poor, you’re committing a sin. What does the word of God say? ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ When Jesus was asked to summarize the Law, he said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ And when the Scripture says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ part of what it means is, ‘You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but you shall judge your neighbor with justice.’” Religion that plays favorites, and especially that favors the rich over the poor, is worthless, and no thing of God, for it’s directly opposed to the law of love.
Now, in response to this, the temptation is to say, “Well, it’s no big deal—it’s just one little sin; I’m doing everything else OK, so I don’t need to worry about it.” To that, James says, it doesn’t work that way: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” This is an extraordinary statement, and one which should be taken completely seriously; there is no such thing as being mostly innocent before God. As the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century British saint who was a formidable biblical scholar and medieval scientist, put it, if we practice partiality—if we play favorites between one person and another, one group of people and another—then it’s the same as if we had committed adultery or murder.
The reason for this is that God’s law isn’t just a bunch of disconnected commands, though that’s how we tend to think of it. It isn’t like human laws, where if you get caught breaking a particular law, you’re punished for breaking that particular law, and that law only. Instead, the law of God is a whole, it’s all of a piece—it’s the imperative to love God and others as he loves us, with our whole being—and any sin breaks that whole law. You’ll hear people argue sometimes over whether some sins are worse than others; one side will point to the differing punishments assigned to various sins in the Old Testament, while the other will maintain that we can’t call some sins worse than others because that would mean calling some sinners worse than others. The truth of the matter is, both sides are right; yes, some sins clearly are worse than others, but none of us can claim to be any better than anyone else, because we’ve all broken the law of God, and we’re all accountable for all of it. The weight of the whole law of God rests across all our shoulders, and no strength of ours can lift it.
This is why James commands us, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty, for judgment will be merciless to those who have not shown mercy.” We have no hope, except by the mercy of God; we have no hope, except in the love of God. We can’t satisfy his law on our own, but only by the grace of God in Christ, who took on himself the punishment for our sin; it’s only in Christ that there is anything for any of us save the most merciless judgment. And—here’s the key—we need to see ourselves accordingly, and to treat others accordingly. Our lives rest on the love and mercy and grace of God, which we do not and will never deserve, and so we must show love and grace and mercy to others, whether they deserve it or not. We must treat others with love and serve them with grace no matter whether we think they have it coming, or whether they will ever be able to do anything for us in return, because we need to show others the mercy we have received. To those who refuse to show mercy, there remains no mercy, but only the hard edge of judgment; but to those who show mercy, to those who share the love and grace we have received, mercy wins out over judgment.
This isn’t always easy, because it often runs against the grain, not only of our own expectations, but of those around us. James knew that, and he knew what he was saying. He was in Jerusalem, where he was the leader of the church, but he wrote to Christians across the Roman Empire, living in the Roman culture and playing by Roman rules; and for all the advantages we noted to playing favorites in our society, they were far, far greater in that one. You see, Roman society was completely stratified by wealth; everything depended on your rank—where you could live, what you could do, everything—and your rank depended on your net worth. The law specified what your net worth had to be to qualify for a given rank. The rich and powerful would serve as patrons, and their clients would have to show up at the patron’s house first thing in the morning, every morning, to pay them homage and see if there were any tasks their patron wished to assign them. Thus for the rich in Roman society, their wealth automatically meant they could tell people what to do and expect to have it done immediately; because they were rich, they got what they wanted, when they wanted it, and that was all there was to it.
To buck this, then, as James called the early church to do, meant crossing the expectations of their culture, and of their wealthy members, of how the rich were to be treated; it meant rejecting the values of a society that honored people based on how much money they had, and choosing to honor people instead based on a very different standard, one which their culture not only would not understand but in fact would find offensive. It meant rejecting the expectation that service was a duty to be given to the rich and powerful simply because they were rich and powerful, and to hold up instead the Christian responsibility to serve the poor, the powerless and the needy. It meant rejecting the lordship of the proud and the mighty, and honoring as Lord the humble crucified Christ. It meant turning away from a social order that was all about power—as most human social orders are—and embracing a different order, one which is all about love, and mercy, and service. It meant telling their world, “We don’t follow you anymore—we don’t serve you anymore,” turning their back on it to follow Christ instead, no matter what. May we be just as committed.