James 2-3: Resisting Favoritism Toward the Rich - Kyle Hanawalt
Today, I am continuing a series that I started a few weeks ago on the New Testament letter of James. If you were here with us you would have heard me talk about how this letter addresses a human struggle, that when we’re talking about the deepest matters and convictions of life, like we do in faith, it is easy to get pulled into a world that is too much talk, and not enough action… and in the end the key question we must ask is: - what is this producing in my life?
James, who is believed to have been Jesus brother. Was a leader in the early church -- And, if you’ve ever read some of this letter, you might get the sense that James is… a little frustrated.
And that would makes sense. This guy grew up with Jesus, he saw how Jesus lived his life, a life that was spent with outcasts, and the poor and those considered unholy.
And from that experience he writes this letter because what he is observing in these early churches looks to be quite the opposite the way his brother lived and spoke of God: these churches seem to just be maintaining the status quo of the world. Celebrating and elevating the rich and powerful Marginalizing and dishonoring the poor and those of low status. And he sees the church leaders showing clear favoritism and deference to those with money and status. While ignoring and saying that those in need and facing hardship are just reaping what they sow.
I think about the frustration I feel today when I look at the state of the religious right in our country. I can only imagine what James, who grew up watching Jesus, would feel seeing all of this
And before we dive back into the letter, I want to say that reading James over the last month, It has really risen in my power rankings of favorite parts of the Bible. I just find it so pointed, as I read it I can’t help but feel like it has so much relevance to our world today. Our world with so often too much talk not enough action, a world that clearly favors the rich, a world full of preferential treatment of those like us, and in turn a narrowing understanding of who our neighbors are, who are those we are accountable to. A world where I keep waiting for an adult to step in and say enough is enough, eventually we have to be accountable for our actions, accountable for how we speak to each other.
And with my frustration at our current landscape I have been reading this letter, and sensing James’ anger, seeing his desire to cut through the BS, and demand some accountability for how these people are treating each other, and speaking to each other, demand some accountability for how the poor, outcast, and marginalized are ignored and oppressed, while the rich and powerful are celebrated. And reading his words have felt consoling, like I am not alone in my anger at the injustice I see, God sees it to and is actively fighting against it. It has made me feel more hopeful and less cynical.
With that, let’s pick up in Chapter 2
2 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must 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. Right on the surface there is some really poignant stuff there. We gotta keep ourselves in check that we are truly treating all people with the honor and dignity they deserve. We gotta check our prejudice.
In some ways there is just a clear practical application to this passage. Don’t treat rich people as if they are better, cuz their not. That preferential treatment is ugly. We here as a community should make sure that everyone who comes in here is welcomed and treated as an equal.
But, I actually think James is doing more than just challenging the behavior of favoritism. He is challenging the very thing creates the favoritism in the first place.
So, we as humans tend to show favoritism toward what we hold as ideal. It’s not necessarily what we WANT to be true of us, but what is most often true of us all is that we show favoritism towards the rich because we believe being rich is what makes a good life.
I was reading something in the economist from last year. there have been several studies that have looked at this same thing: why people vote against their own economic interest. Like why people who are in a lower economic bracket would vote to raise taxes for themselves, but cut taxes for those in a bracket higher than themselves. In politics we actually see this all the time, people voting for things that hurt themselves but help people in more privileged positions. In short, their finding were that people favor their ideals more than they favor themselves. I advocate for the rich because I think, one day I can be one of those rich when I reach my ideal.
The reality is, all throughout history we have held being rich and powerful as the ideal.
What is a good life, what is the I want, in which I’ll be happy and fulfilled.
Well, speaking for myself, when I imagine my idealized life, I picture myself in big beautiful house, with lots of space, lots of disposable income, I imagine having a job where I am the one in charge.
I still picture the good life as a life with money and status.
And so, why did people in the early churches James was writing to show favoritism to the rich, why do lower income people today vote for things that help higher income people. Because humans show favoritism to what they hold as ideal.
We treat rich people better, because we all kinda want to be rich. And in turn we treat poor people worse because we want to distance ourselves from that which we are afraid.
And I think what James highlight here is that the narrative that the good life is the rich life. This might be the most oppressive narrative in human history.
This belief makes us miserable, believing that life will be good once I get that raise, that new job, that new house, that space in my budget. That narrative is the very thing that leads to, as James says here us exploiting one another, or as he says later in Chapter 3 that this ideal is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. it leads to bitter envy and selfish ambition, which is where you find every disorder and evil practice. I don’t think he is saying to have money is bad, or being rich makes you evil or unspiritual, or demonic. Rather, I think he is deeply in touch with how oppressive the narrative of a good life being a wealthy life is.
It’s not about wealth or power being innately evil, it’s about the corrosive effect pursuing money and power as the good life ideal has on our soul.
And I think it’s important to note that religious communities are not exempt to this
James is not critiquing this aspect of the wider world, he is challenging these religious communities.
That they are just as prone to encourage the narrative that a good life is a life of power, status, and wealth. It’s just religious versions of power, status, and wealth.
And so here, James is not just challenging the favoritism we show those with power and money. He is challenging our ideals, he is challenging what we hold up as a good life.
He is inviting us to see our hope for a happy, fulfilled future through a different lens And that different lens is the life of Jesus. That the life of Jesus shows us that the good life is actually a life that is full of loving our neighbors, peace, humility, upholding the dignity of others Later, in Chapter 3 James describes the wisdom that of the life of Jesus this way. It is first of all pure (As in not tainted by selfish ambition); then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. for Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James is not telling us that we should live like Jesus because we really ought to, that we should resist the narrative that a wealthy life is one to be favored, because we’re really bad people if we don’t.
No, he is telling us this because holding the life of Jesus as our ideal will actually result in a life we want. A life of fullness, and connection, and depth, and belonging. As I read James descriptors again - pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive (not as in passive or being a doormat, but rather in openness to others being elevated, even above yourself, because we are secure enough in our sense of value, that we don’t need to find it through dominating) then full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap and in turn harvest of righteousness. These things that he is highlighting, these things that so intuitively grab my heart they are the activities of Jesus -- they are the Jesus way.
After the first passage I read, later in chapter two. James describes the way of Jesus as bringing freedom.
And that is my hope here, that we would find more freedom. That we could find freedom from the narrative that the good life is the life with money and power. That we could find freedom from all the ways we have created ideals in our mind that actually oppress us. Ideals that are so often created through our families of origin. That a good life means that you have this kind of job, or that a good life means you are married with kids, or a good life means that you have a nice house, or the good life means whatever narrative our culture or our families set in our minds as the ideal. My hope is that we might find the freedom of setting the life and way of jesus as our ideal
To love our neighbor, to pursue peace, to be humble and full of mercy.
In a moment I will bring us into a time of prayer. I would like to bring to God any of the narratives and ideals that we hold that might actually be hurting us and in turn find some more freedom.
But this freedom, this different ideal is hard!!! Isn’t it hard? We are formed in every way to show favoritism to wealth and status... here is one way we can try to shape our ideals — James actually highlights this in the beginning of chapter three which is to watch how we speak, to speak more intentionally… -- he describes our words as the spark that can start a great fire.
— and that over time such attention and intention to our words can change what we show favoritism to In my other job where we attempt prepare kids for the school day physically, emotionally and academically., I think about how much intentionality we put into how we talk about the families we partner with. First off, we try to use words like pattern, not help, not work with. We want to make sure that in every way we operate, especially with our words we are elevating the families we partner with, not stealing dignity. So often I hear non profits use words like, we help the needy, the poor, the less fortunate. All is well intentioned, but think about how that would feel if someone said that about you, it’s distancing, dignity stealing. Or when talking about the educational inequity we see along racial lines, often people call this the achievement gap. However, there’s actually been a bit of a movement to talk about this as educational debt, which I really prefer, that some students come in to room with an educational debt placed on their shoulders from generations of injustice. This just, for me, puts the onus where it belongs, not the student who has a gap, but systemic issues that have disadvantaged the student. That they are not walking in at ground 0 - they have inherited a deficit a debt or another way I think about this is how we at BLV have chosen to talk about our volunteering at the warming center. We do it for those in our neighborhood who are currently experiencing homelessness. Think about how different that is from a dignity perspective than talking about the people who come to the warming center as the homeless. That is a identity thing, they are the homeless, whereas saying, those currently experiencing homelessness in a small way separates the struggles they are experiencing in life, from who they are as a people I also think about some advice I was given during the recession at the end of the last decade. It was a time where people all across the social stratosphere were unemployed or underemployed. And I was given the advice that considering the times, I should avoid asking people, particularly those I just meet, what do you do for a living. That for so many people what they were doing for a living was quite divorced from who they wanted to be seen as or their ideal.
I actually wonder if that advice is still true today. That particularly when we first meet someone we don’t ask them what a do for a living, we don’t try to see them through the lens of their job, or their income or their clothes, the size of their house, the extravengacy of their vacations. We try to see them and their value through a different lense.
Now this all may sounds like Symantec’s our words do have a limit, but I actually think James is onto something. That words can be a spark that lights a great fire. I have found that in my efforts to have my words point towards the ideals of the way of Jesus, dignity for all, humility, peacemaking. And away from the ideals of money, power, and status. That It has had a very real impact on my heart, on what ideals I find myself believing actually leads to the good life. It’s like the choice of my words end up being a guidepost for my brain, my heart, my soul for what I really do want to be about Because changing those things is hard, and starting with the words that I use and the things i chose to draw attention to with my voice has just felt like a accessible place to start
If you would stand with me I would like to pray
Break oppressive narratives