First Mennonite Church
February 14, 2016
Faith Reflected in Consistent Love:
The Problem with Partiality and Discrimination
Text: James 2:1-13
My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
When we meet someone for the first time, the feelers and filter in the back of our mind begin to work fast. The antennae or feelers of our mind begin to scan for clues that will help us identify what kind of person we are meeting. The filter in us begins to screen for words, accent, and mannerism that would give us a sense of who we are talking to. This automatic and somewhat unconscious internal screening process has no other purpose but to help us identify the new person we are meeting. This screening process helps us decide if there are affinities or differences between the new acquaintance and us, and if we’d like to pursue a friendship, or if we’ll prefer to keep a distance from that person.
What is worse, is when upon just seeing a person we cast judgment even without exchanging a word with the other person or even giving ourselves a chance to know the person.
It is hard to avoid being biased or having prejudice against others. By nature, each of us has been and is being shaped by many factors so that we become blind to our prejudice and personal preferences. It is, therefore, hard not show favoritism towards those we admire or are like us. It is also very difficult not to be biased against those we see or consider different. Our prejudice against others can be based on religion, race, color of the skin, culture, gender, education, political preference, or social or economic status. The fact is, deep within us is an inclination to show preference or prejudice for any or a combination of the reasons above mentioned.
Discrimination happens everywhere and all the time. It happens in families when parents without realizing it pick a favorite child among their children. It happens in multi-cultural societies. The predominant culture exercises power and discriminates against minority groups. It also happens in the Christian church. And that is the reason James confronted the issue in the most prophetic manner. He did not mince words to confront what he saw as evil, worldly, and plain and simple: attitudes that go contrary to the Spirit of Jesus, the glorious Lord. His words were harsh to his first readers and still are hard to hear today. Some might argue that James himself might have been biased against the rich. But if it were only James who spoke or wrote in this manner we might agree with that assessment about James. Yet, the Old Testament prophets, the Psalms, and Proverbs blamed the rich for the plight of the poor. Rich people, they said, oppressed, exploited, and plundered the poor “because they were poor.” The rich exploited the powerlessness of the poor for their own advantage, and as if that were not enough, they “crushed” them in courts of law. With powerful forces like that, poor people often could not control their own destinies.
There are many who are poor because of their own making. Likewise, there are many who are poor because of health factors. But as for James the reason why people were poor was irrelevant. What was relevant to James was that the church should be the most welcoming place on earth because of whom the church confesses to follow. The church should be a place where social status, educational level, gender, race, and every kind of worldly stratification is subject to the lordship of Jesus Christ, the glorious Lord. The church is a place where we are all brothers and sisters in equal standing before the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, James addressed those who while professing to be followers of the glorious Jesus Christ, were lacking evidence of living according to his example and teaching. James’ concern was aggravated by the fact that their lack of Christ-like love was not only being manifested when these Christians were away from their gathering, but it was actually happening during the worship service. It already is a terrible thing that Christians should discriminate against others, but when it also happens in the place of worship, James could not stay silent at it. Being prejudiced against others is already a terrible thing to be. How much worse it is when prejudice is displayed during the worship service?
James’ vivid image to make his point cannot be any clearer. Suppose a nicely dressed rich man, with a golden ring enters the church and another with dirty old clothes comes in too and you say to the rich guy, “Sir, we reserve this special seat for sorts like you, welcome. Be our guest of honor!” But to the poor man you say, “Hey, go stand over there, just so we keep the air a little cleaner!” Maybe, not quite that way. But as a pastor said, “When a person who is obviously from the street comes into church, we might think, “Oh no, what does he want?” Then the church members go looking for the pastor to help this person.
When Christians treat people differently simply because of their wealth or lack of it, James says they have become like judges with evil intentions. James’ exhortation against showing favoritism between a rich and a poor man is just for the sake of an example. There are many more reasons why people show favoritism. There are many more reasons why people discriminate and show partiality. As I mentioned earlier, people show preferences based on race, social and economic status,] religion and so on. When a church or pastor shows partiality by giving disproportionate attention and honor to its wealthy members or those who have skills and talents, it most likely is discriminating against its poor and physically disabled members. There are many stories in which people with mental illnesses are overlooked in church. It is not uncommon to hear families with children with disabilities feeling left out by their churches.
Just the other day I was reading the story of Joshua Dean of Camp Hill, PA.
Joshua Dean has spina bifida. He said that while attending college he attended various churches. Yet, many times he wondered if attending church was worth all the trouble he had to go through. In many of the churches he attended there was a feeling of being ignored and out of place.
“I was skeptical, reluctant and a little scared upon venturing
up the hill to Slate Hill Mennonite Church, in Camp Hill, PA.,
for the first time,” writes Joshua. “I was unsure of many things. I have faced fears and stigmatization in this stage of life, and I was nervous I might find more of the same. When I first arrived at Slate Hill in May, 2014, I was in a dry desert and I felt spiritually abandoned. I wanted to find restoration and hope through God’s people. I was seeking a tangible expression of the gospel. My fears and anxieties quickly subsided upon arriving at Slate Hill.
Everyone should have a place in Church. Everyone should feel welcomed in and be welcome by the church. The church was born in the heart of Jesus, its Lord and Savior. But when the church dishonors the poor, overlooks those with disabilities of some kind, or when the church gives preferential treatment to some, then the royal law of loving the neighbor as self is broken. And in James’ indictment, the church becomes a judge with evil intention. The church becomes guilty of breaking all of God’s commandments. For James, faith in God and love for God go hand in hand with love for the neighbor. Love for God cannot be separated from the way we treat our neighbor and fellow brother or sister. Discrimination is incompatible with love.
James worried that if the poor cannot find a safe place in the church, which was created to represent Jesus, there would be no hope for them. If the church is not a welcoming place to everyone, the church ceases to be that sign or reflection (even if pale) of the glorious kingdom of God it announces. But when the church welcomes those whom the world considers unworthy, then it becomes like the banquet table of Jesus’ parable of the kingdom of God. The church becomes like the table around which the blind, the maimed, the homeless, and sinners are served by the host, Jesus Christ.
The church is heir to the kingdom of God, but today, we are called to show the same hospitality of our king, Jesus Christ. He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 3:13).
May the Lord help us grow in grace towards everyone. May the Lord open our eyes to see where there is prejudice and partiality in our heart. May the Lord forgive us for the times we have failed to show hospitality in his name. Amen!
 www.adnetonline.org/Newsletter/Pages/2016/Faith-in-Action. (Friday, February 12, 2016)