February 7th, 2021
A couple weeks ago after worship one Sunday, I was visiting with one of our former pastors Freeman McCall and seeing that today’s scripture from the book of James was right around the corner, he shared with me this story. Here’s to hoping I can do it justice. The story goes something like this:
One Sunday morning a young man walks into a church sanctuary and takes a seat for worship. His clothes are dirty and torn, his beard long, his hair out of control, smells poorly. After the service, the pastor greets this young man, introduces himself and looking at him in the eyes, says to him, “Young man, I want you to go out this week and I want you to pray every day and ask God how you should dress in a way that would honor him in a place of worship.” And so the young man said okay and went off on his way. The next week he came back walked into the sanctuary and took his seat for worship. His clothes, just as they were before were dirty and torn, his beard had grown even farther, his hair even longer, and somehow, he smelled even worse than before. After the service, the pastor, walked over to him, and had some words for him, this time speaking a little bit louder, now making a public spectacle of him, saying, “Young man, did you go out and pray what you are supposed to wear when you come to this church?” He said, “Yes sir, I asked God that question and he said, he didn’t know what to wear because he said he’s never been here.”
Pretty good, right? As soon as Freeman shared that story with me, I felt like it was my pastoral responsibility to share it with all of you.
This morning, we continue on in our sermon series on the book of James. We’re in chapter 2 now, and today we come to a passage about the dangers and problems of favoritism, yes favoritism, or in showing partiality, as our translation also describes it. James begins chapter 2 by saying:
2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
In some ways, this seems like an abrupt transition from out of nowhere, where now all of a sudden James wants to tackle favoritism of all things. Now, it almost certainly was a problem within the churches he was addressing, but yet, in addition, it seems to be a continuation of the overarching theme that we saw towards the end of chapter 1, where James implored us to not merely be hearers of the word, but doers too. That our actions would reflect our beliefs and that we would live out what we know to be true.
And so notice, how James reiterates that charge now into chapter 2, he’s asking in a rhetorical fashion, friends do your acts of favoritism really reflect your belief in Jesus Christ? Or in other words, James is highlighting their inconsistency, that is, how in the world can you believe in this Jesus, and all of the bible’s teachings and yet still show favoritism?
Now, in terms of definitions, favoritism isn’t too hard to define - it’s to show preferential treatment towards one group rather than another, often at the other’s expense. Even still, it’s helpful to understand the word biblically speaking, where this word for favoritism literally translates, “to receive a face” or to take someone at face value or to judge them based on external criteria only, just as the pastor in the story I shared moments ago was doing in a negative sense with the young man.
And truth is, we can show favoritism, or play favorites in so many different ways, whether it be through the clothes that we wear or whether someone is poor or wealthy, as is the example described in verses 2-4. That’s for sure is one way in which we can show favoritism. Yet, we can also show favoritism, when it comes to men vs. women, young vs. old, beauty and attractiveness, in terms of race or education or political affiliation, social status, what families we belong to or social circles we run in and more. The ways in which we can show favoritism are almost endless. In fact, if you read the headlines in today’s news, you might read about what has been described as vaccine favoritism, where apparently, there have been instances of hospital board members or wealthy trustees or donors being moved up the line when it comes to receiving the vaccine. In the end, favoritism is a tale as old as time, yet still very much exists today.
Now as for our passage today, and for our purposes this morning, James spends the bulk of his time making an argument against favoritism, making his case for why favoritism is such a big deal and at its heart, why it’s antithetical to our professions of faith and belief in Jesus Christ.
In verse 5, James asks this rhetorical question, asking,
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?
Shortly before this question, James gives a hypothetical example of favoritism playing out within the church, where a rich person, as is to be assumed with gold rings on their finger, is given a good seat in an assembly, the equivalent of our sanctuary during Sunday worship, while a poor person in dirty clothes is given a bad seat, told to stand in the back or sit on the floor.
It’s an example where preferential treatment is given to the rich person, and where people are being judged based on appearance and external factors.
And James, as he begins this series of rhetorical questions is saying, God does not act or judge in this way.
After all, becoming a follower of Jesus is not like applying for a job or sending in an application to rent an apartment. It’s not about who you know, how many connections you have, or how flashy your resume is. You don’t have to show two forms of ID or share your credit score or your last two pay stubs. That’s not how entry into the Kingdom of God works. Rather it’s about, as James says, his kingdom is “promised to those who love him.”
Where it’s not about externals like status and wealth, but rather internals like faith and the posture of our heart. In fact, remember what was said as for the criteria before anointing David as King.
“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature … man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And so James, through this rhetorical question is saying, “God doesn’t judge or make distinctions or say who’s in and who’s out on the basis wealth or status or appearance and so neither should you. Neither should the church, a group of people who represent God and God’s values.”
Even more, James says, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?”
Here I think James is saying that, if in fact, the scales were to tip in any direction in God’s eyes, they in fact tip towards those who are deemed poor by the world’s standards, since it’s the often the case that those who experience poverty in any form – economically, socially, physically or spiritually – who often times are more prone to cry out in faith to God in their needy state.
The point seems to be this, to show favoritism, to judge people and show preferential treatment on the basis of eternal factors like wealth and status, and is contrary to the heart and character of God and that to do so within the church is an incredibly poor representation of what he is like to the outside world.
Friends, for what it’s worth, this might be an appropriate time to highlight a way in which we try to guard against favoritism here at our church. And that is, I don’t know how much you all individually or as families give to our church. That is, when it comes to our church’s financials, I see about as much detail as you all see, for example, what was presented to you at last Sunday’s Congregational Meeting. Now, there are a few reasons why I am not shared the specific amounts you give, and certainly one of those reasons is to guard against favoritism. For example, I would never want the time that I spend with people or allocate towards pastoral care to be influenced by how much people give. Or when it comes to key decisions being made within the church, I would never want to be in a spot where I’m trying to appease or cater to those who give the most. Now, of course, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t show favoritism even if I had that information, yet nevertheless, by not having that information, it helps to ensure that I don’t.
In the end, showing favoritism is to draw boundaries or create distinctions where God does not.
And now, all that said, there’s a second reason why favoritism is such a big deal, in that, not only does it run contrary to God’s character, but in addition, it runs contrary and is in complete violation of God’s law.
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality [that is, favoritism], you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
Here James is connecting the dots between favoritism and the essence of God’s law, as he reflects back on Jesus’s words when he was asked what the greatest commandment was, where Jesus was asked, out of the hundreds of Old Testament Laws, which one is the greatest, which one gets to its very essence. And Jesus replied,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” And adding another the second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here James seems to be saying, showing favoritism violates the very essence or core of God’s law and that by showing preferential treatment to one group at the expense of another is a failure to love the God who created all in his image and a failure to love our neighbor as yourself.
In short, showing favoritism is a failure to love. And when we fail the law in that way, we’ve essentially failed it in every way.
You see, it’s easy to see the appeal of playing favorites. For example, consider the example that James gives of the rich person and poor person in the church sanctuary. What’s the advantage of showing favoritism towards the rich? Well, it’s simple. As someone who is well connected, of good standing, an abundance of wealth and resources, if you do them a favor, they have the means of returning that favor. If you scratch their back, they can scratch yours. Not so with the poor person, they have nothing to give back in return. Favoritism often has a selfish component to it. It’s a kind of love your neighbor for yourself, not love your neighbor as yourself.
But to truly “love your neighbor as yourself” is a selfless kind of love, a kind of love that expects nothing in return. It’s the kind of love that says, “How would I want to be treated if I were that other person?” To love the poor person who has no means by which to thank you – that’s true, authentic, selfless love.
Favoritism not only runs against God’s character, but even more it fails the essence of his law.
So friends, where is their favoritism in your life? Where do you have a tendency to play favorites? I’ll admit, I have a hard time with this one, as it’s hard to imagine, playing favorites when it comes to seating assignments as James describes in this passage. I can’t imagine any of you doing that either, and shoot, so many within our congregation want the seats in the back, the bad seats, rather than the good seats up front anyway, but whatever, I digress …
Maybe one of the best things you and I can do is to double check and triple check our biases at the door. By that I mean, when it comes to making a difficult decision, when it comes to saying yes or no to something or some request, maybe ask yourself, would my response be different if the person making the request was different, whatever external differences that might be? Maybe check your biases in that way and see if you can shine light on any favoritism from that approach. Or maybe it’s as simple as getting a second or third opinion and asking someone, “Am I thinking about this, am I going about this right way? Or ask, what are my blind spots on this one?” Those might be a couple tactics or approaches to guarding against favoritism.
And I’ll finish with this:
As we discussed earlier, one of the reasons favoritism is so offensive to God is that it is in direct opposition to Jesus’s charge for us to “Love our neighbor as yourself.”
And James’s argument in this second half of this passage is that whether its murder or adultery or favoritism or whatever else, we all fail to obey and uphold God’s law in some way, shape or form, just about every single day, if not every day.
And in light of that James says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”
Which is a curious thing to say, On one hand, James says we will be will all be judged someday, for our failure to uphold the law, but yet at the same time, we’ll be judged by the law of liberty, by a law that brings freedom, making it now the second time in this book that James has made a point to describe the law as the law of liberty.
And so how in the world can a law that we’ll be judged by also bring freedom?
Well, it’s because Jesus, through his death, takes the judgment upon himself for our utter failure and inability to fulfill and uphold the law. And here I’m helped by Pastor Greg Gilbert who makes this key point that as followers of Jesus, you and I are no longer slaves to the law, motivated to obey it out of fear of punishment but rather sons and daughters of the Father, motivated to obey it out of love and obedience to the Father. And when we obey the law motivated by love rather than fear, that’s when it becomes freeing. There’s no longer the fear of failure, but rather the joy and freedom of obedience, because just like our relationship with an earthly parent doesn’t hang in the balance with our every failure, neither does our relationship with God our Heavenly Father.
James says, 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy, but yet how can we as his followers, who have been shown mercy, not show mercy to one another?
In the end, James concludes. mercy triumphs over judgment. It’s a fitting end to this section, that in the end, mercy has the final word.