James 2:1-13 – Part Two

We’re currently studying the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. This is part two of a three-part look at James 2:1-13 – if you’re just joining us, check out last Friday’s post first.

Jesus and James subvert the status game

But Jesus himself called his followers to a totally different way of life, were wealth and influence is not a badge of honour. Instead, Jesus turned things upside down and said that honour is found in servanthood:

Lk 22:25-26 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

Similarly, James – following the teaching of his brother – says this:

2:5-6a  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. 

What James is doing, then, is not addressing one, isolated issue – that of how we treat the rich and poor. In his day the main avenue for displaying your importance was in lavishing benefits on the public, and receiving honour in return. But James tells them not to play their part in society’s status-game.

In fact, he goes on to ask why they would want to play that game – of giving special honour to their wealthy so-called ‘benefactors’ – when on closer inspection, the wealthy aren’t that beneficent. It’s the wealthy who are exploiting the poor and taking them to court. Why give people automatic honour because of their wealth, when most of the wealthy in the first century were actually harming the others in society? And although we aren’t told exactly how, these wealthy were causing particular harm to Christians. James puts it this way:

5:6b-7 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?

Against this, James reminds his readers of the teaching of the Old Testament and of Jesus:

5:8-9  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.

Don’t discriminate between people based on earthly criteria. Don’t go along with the status games your society plays. Realise that in the church, those things don’t count. In fact, God has chosen the least in society for special honour, not the greatest. Stop playing the status game.

Subverting the status game in the 21st century

What games do we play along with that allow people to display their importance? Wealth is still up there, although it’s not the only one. What about celebrity? Or career? Or appearance?

Celebrity is an interesting one, as in the past century it’s become probably the key status indicator. How do we deal with celebrity in the church, given that we know that worldly fame is fleeting:

Ecc 1:11  No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

How should we, as the church, deal with celebrity? In a way, we still worship at this altar. I’ve been to two funerals attended by a well-known ex-politician; I even sat next to him at one. Now this is no reflection on him, as he tried to slip in and out as anonymously as possible. But both times – even though he was there in a private capacity – other people felt obliged to treat him differently; to give him a special welcome from the pulpit; to bring him up and introduce him to the pastor of the church. We still tend to act like some people are more worthy of our attention than others.

It gets more complicated because we can use celebrity as a means of bringing people to hear the gospel. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s important that the rest of the world sees that it’s not just unfashionable nobodies like us who follow Jesus. There are people who ‘have it all’ in the eyes of the world who also follow Jesus. But we have to be careful that we don’t exalt celebrity Christians to the status of ‘super-Christians’. Although their celebrity may open many doors for the gospel that remain closed to us, they are no better than anyone else who visits our church. Don’t play the status game, says James.

More commonly encountered is the status that comes from our career. More so than any outward markers of wealth, people are judged by their career. When meeting new people, usually one of the first things asked is ‘what to you do?’ Often this can equal ‘how important are you?’

Now again, this isn’t straightforward, as one way of getting to know someone and have something to talk about is to find out what they do for maybe 40+ hours of their week. So we have to be careful of our motivation, and how we ask it. I deliberately throw that question in as late in a conversation as I can, and usually phrase it ‘so, what are you up to this week?’ – which usually invites conversation about work or study or school without implying that they’re about to be judged.

Education is also tied up with career and status. My church, I’m guessing, has a higher percentage of people who are at or have been to uni, than in some of the other churches in our area. Why is that? Is it because some people who turn up feel as though they won’t fit in, and so end up going elsewhere?

Our career, education and our status generally in the rest of society can also have an impact on the roles we are asked to fill in the church. Again, as a church we have to be careful that we don’t fall for the status game not just in meeting people, but in how we choose leaders. Just because a person has certain skills in the business world doesn’t mean they have the qualifications to hold leadership positions in the church.

My father must have a sign on his back that says ‘church secretary’ (American readers: church administrator/deacon). Well-dressed, well-spoken, manager-type – he’d be perfect! My current church is the only one he’s been a part of during my lifetime where he’s managed to avoid being drafted into the job. But although his skills in the business world come in handy, they don’t qualify him for leadership in the church. Have a read of 1 Tim 3 later if you want to see Paul’s list of qualifications for leadership. Because none of the things Paul mentions is about skills or abilities; it’s all about godly character. Fortunately, my father passes on that score as well, even discounting for family bias.

But that’s James’ point: don’t go judging others by the world’s standards. In the church, we judge by God’s standards, which are quite different. Skills and abilities – and of course spiritual gifts – come into play, too, but they’re not everything. Bill Hybels has three criteria by which he assesses potential leaders in his church, and ranks them in order: character first, then competence at what they do and chemistry with the rest of the team. He doesn’t want leaders who are necessarily of high status in the business or academic world; but leaders who above all are godly, genuine people. Don’t play the status game the way the world does.

But we’ve even invented our own status games in the church. Despite the fact that Paul says in 1 Cor 3 that leaders are servants, we can fall into the trap of viewing our role in the church as a badge of status. Thankfully, pastors these days are being viewed a little less as super-spiritual gurus. Again, we have to be careful that we don’t play a status game by taking the servant roles God has assigned in the church, and turn them into a source of worldly honour.

And last, but by no means least, do we also play the status game by judging people by appearances? Do we subconsciously extend a greater welcome those who are physically more attractive, and ignore those who are less attractive? Do we pay more attention to those whose style and clothing marks them out as fashionable, and ignore those who dress like… well… Christians? Do we gravitate to those who look like us – either ethnically or culturally – and leave it to someone else to speak to those who are different?

Or more subtly, when we encounter someone in our church who is different, do we worry about whether we’d find something to talk about? And so, despite wanting to show the love & acceptance of Christ to them, we end up walking past them as it seems too hard; to threatening. I think James would say: don’t you dare. For that bold, risky, costly love that starts a conversation which may well take us out of our comfort zone – that’s the kind of love that true faith demands.

It’s not easy. It’s certainly not as easy as chatting with your friends after church; and it’s not as easy as meeting a new person who looks & speaks like you. But it’s what James says ‘true religion’ is all about: looking after the poor, the outcast. Not playing society’s status game, but instead, turning it upside down.

To think about

All of the above.

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