James 2:1-17 (ESV)
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 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, 3 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,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Dear Heavenly Father, send us your Holy Spirit so that we may not show favouritism or partiality, but love all people in the same way Christ loves us. Amen.
Let’s imagine the following scene:
You’re sitting down to watch a highly anticipated finals match between Geelong and Melbourne.
You look around the ground to see everyone dressed to support their teams – they’re either in their navy blue and whites or their red and blue. They loudly taunt each other as to who’s going to win. As their respective teams run onto the field, their supporters cheer at the top of their lungs. There’s great excitement in the air as the two teams and their supporters battle for supremacy!
But when the umpires take to the field, the whole crowd falls totally still and silent.
They’re not wearing their usual lime green shirts and grey shorts. Instead, they’re dressed in navy blue and white!
Once the crowd get over their shock, they start booing and throwing things at the umpires. The Melbourne supporters and players angrily charge toward the umpires, yelling all sorts of obscenities, and the place is threatening to break into a riot!
The whole arena is turned into an uproar because, despite their own favouritism and bias toward their own team, the spectators and players had come for a fair game. The umpires are supposed to show no partiality or favouritism, yet here they are proudly showing who they’re going to give their bias and preference to!
Everyone’s angry because umpires aren’t supposed to have favourite teams! I mean, how can you umpire and judge fairly if you favour one team over the other one? They’re supposed to treat everyone with equal justice and objectivity!
Now imagine a second picture:
Two different people walk into church this morning – one is well dressed, well-spoken, and smiling, while the other looks glum or depressed, is dressed in faded or tattered clothes, and perhaps even smells as if he or she hasn’t washed or shaved for a month.
While I know it’s tempting to only talk to the people you know and love here at worship, you know (or at least should know) the first impressions of your welcome may make the difference whether guests will ever choose to come again, so, what will you do? Who will you approach and welcome?
Will you first go and welcome the well-dressed, clean and smiling person, or will you approach the smelly, sad-looking, dirty and poorly-dressed person?
This is a time to be honest with yourself. What colours will you show? Will you show favouritism toward the rich and friendly, or the poor and depressed?
You see, the twist is, as a Christian you’re not allowed to be the spectator who can choose sides. You’re supposed to act according to your faith in your Saviour Jesus Christ who shows no favouritism or bias. And if you’re ever to show any distinction or favour, it should always be toward the one who needs to receive mercy.
You’re not allowed to sit by and let someone else show mercy to the poor and needy because, as one who has received mercy from God, you’re now also supposed to be the merciful one without bias. Anything different to this would show you don’t truly practice what you believe.
You’re no longer the spectator. Instead, everyone else in your life are the spectators who are watching your every action and are judging every word you speak because they know you bear the name of Christ as a Christian. They know that just coming along to worship and pretending you’re a good person for an hour a week isn’t good enough. Only hypocrites do that. Your faith in God who has been merciful to you is supposed to be lived out in every hour of every day, no matter where you are and who is watching.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to show favouritism in your family life, in your workplace, as we talk about sport or vaccinations, and yes, even in church. You might want to include some people into your lives, but you want to exclude others from that opportunity. You wish to serve some people with a generous heart, but let others help themselves. You might willingly gossip and criticise some people, but you might defend and protect others.
What you’re doing is drawing a distinction between people, which is a form of judgment. Yet you know there’s only one judge, and it’s not you or me. To judge anyone as worthy or not of your attention and energy is to replace God’s judgement with your own.
Only God can truly judge people and he’s chosen to be merciful to the blind, the dumb, the foreigner, the sick, and the poor. He’s chosen to love and forgive people who don’t deserve such mercy. As people who believe in this merciful God, you’re to live according to your faith in our merciful God.
Now all this sounds very harsh. It sounds like you’re being burdened with the expectation that you have to live a certain way simply because you’re a Christian.
In this case you might want to argue that you’re not saved by what you do. You don’t have to be perfect because Christ was perfect for you. You might want to hear the Gospel about your forgiveness and salvation instead of what you have to do as one who has received God’s grace!
Well, it’s indeed true you’re saved by grace through faith for the sake of Jesus Christ. You’re not saved by anything you do or don’t do. Being merciful to others doesn’t save you. Salvation comes through trusting the grace and mercy and forgiveness of your Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
You trust he was perfect for you so that you don’t have to be perfect. You trust he died to pay for all the wrong things you do as well as all those good things you failed to do. You trust Jesus showed no partiality toward you, but he freely suffered and died for the forgiveness of all your sins, including your sins of favouritism!
This is all part of what we believe when we say such things as: Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone. But you see, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, faith doesn’t come alone. You can’t have faith by itself. It always comes with attachments.
It comes with attachments because what you believe will always affect the way you live.
It works this way: If you believe God loves you because of your own good works of goodness or faithfulness or service, then you’ll naturally gravitate toward those who you think will be good to you through their own goodness or faithfulness or who might return your grace and favour.
On the other hand, if you believe you can never deserve the grace of God, and have only received forgiveness, life, and salvation as a free and undeserving gift, you might be more willing to give attention and service to those who might be considered as ‘undeserving’.
This means, if you live out what you believe, then when you show favouritism or partiality toward certain people, you end up revealing something of what you believe about God or about yourself.
As a largely middle classed church, we’re often challenged by the fact Jesus didn’t mix so much with the rich or successful or even obedient. In fact, he often criticised them for their misplaced trust in themselves and their own goodness.
Instead, he came and lived and worked and taught among the poor, the sick, the frail, the sinful, the unloved, the rejected, and the frowned upon – the very people we often want to avoid because we might think they’re not as good or faithful or attractive or easy to get along with as we think we are!
Now, I know we’re naturally impressed or attracted to those who are rich, successful, or who seem to do all the right things, even if they’re the type of people who might take advantage of us. We may also feel uncomfortable being with the smelly, the dirty, the poor and the unshaved. We don’t like the way they smell, the way they dress, or the way they look, or the way they act. We might consider them unworthy of our attention, service, or love.
Yet, if God were to treat us in the same way we treat others, well, there’d be little hope for any of us, no matter how good we think we are!
The good news is, the Creator of the world loves you, and considers you worthy of his holy gifts, but not because of anything you’ve done or will ever do. He doesn’t love you because you’re lovely or beautiful or obedient or worthy of his attention. He sees you as a poor, helpless sinner who can’t live up to his expectations, and still loves you anyway!
He knows you can’t save yourself, or come to him under your own power, or be worthy of him through your efforts, so he came to you as a fellow human. He came in the person of Jesus Christ to save you, a poor, helpless sinner.
He then showed a radical justice toward you – a justice which opens the eyes of the blind, heals the sick and injured, grants hearing to the deaf, gives clear speech to those with speaking difficulties, heals foreign people of their demonic possessions, loves the unlovable, grants eternal life to those who die, and forgives serial offenders like you and me.
None of this is because any of us deserve it, but because the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love – a love which is determined to love no matter how unworthy the recipient is.
Now, as people loved by God, who have been graciously forgiven, who have been washed in his holy waters of grace, who have received his holy body and blood which now courses through our veins, and as those who have received the radical justice and impartiality of God, we’re to pass on this same love and service to others.
You see, we know faith never comes alone, but faith in Jesus Christ will always act according to God’s radical justice toward others, especially the poor, the undeserving, the smelly, the misunderstood, the lonely, the widow, the refugee, and the sinner.
So, while we can’t have ‘just’ faith, the faith we have will always be ‘just’, that is, it will always act with the same justice and impartially and mercy of Jesus Christ toward others in need of justice and mercy and grace.
Just like any outward shows of success or power never impressed Jesus, they shouldn’t impress us either. We, as members of the body of Christ, are supposed to live out our faith in Christ by being impartial and unprejudiced toward those who don’t deserve it. In fact, if we’re ever to show any partiality at all, we show it toward those whom others shun or avoid.
It doesn’t matter about your age or ability or knowledge or availability. Be impartial as Christ has been impartial with you. Show no favouritism, but freely show God’s merciful and undeserving love to all. Treat all people as you’ve been treated by Jesus. Love and serve those whom most people in society reject, oppress, or consider worthless. In the daily battle between favouritism and mercy, let mercy and love rule. Let mercy triumph over judgement.
And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.