A gentleman comes to your door. He’s wearing a fine suit, a silk tie, spiffy Italian shoes and a Rolex. His cologne smells expensive, and he leaves a new luxury car purring in your laneway. He says a friend gave him your name and he’d like to get to know you.
Another guy comes to your house. He smells like a dumpster, he hasn’t shaved in days, and he’s wearing mismatched, ragged clothes that don’t fit him. He says the same thing, but in an accent you can’t place.
Which man are you more likely to invite in for tea and scones? If your answer makes you uncomfortable, keep reading.
We have a thing for bling. If people are well-off, we seem to want their friendship. Even King Solomon, who was well-offer than just about anyone who has ever lived, understood this tendency:
The poor is disliked even by his neighbor,
but the rich has many friends.
(Proverbs 14:20 ESV)
Surprise, surprise. Not a lot has changed since 950 B.C.
Is it because rich people are nicer? Easier to get to know? More loyal? More compassionate and understanding? Treat our kids and pets better? No, it’s because they’re rich. And we want them as friends because it does our egos good to be seen with them, to drop their names, and possibly to be on hand to administer first aid in case they experience a fit of magnanimity.
Jesus’ little brother James watched the Saviour minister compassionately to the poor–He could easily relate to them, being poor Himself–and berate the wealthy Jews who were trusting on their riches to settle their accounts with God. He may have heard Jesus say, as Matthew, Mark, and John tell us He did, “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (JOH 12.8 ESV)
Many years later, James addresses the issue of favouritism in his letter–in fact, the first half of the second chapter deals with this issue alone. In the first three verses, he paints a picture of a First Century gathering of believers attended by two visitors: an obviously wealthy man “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing” and “a poor man in shabby clothes.” (JAM 2.2 ESV) He tells his readers (vv. 4-9) that if they pay attention to the rich guy and give him the best seat in the house, but neglect the poor man and make him sit on the floor or off in a corner, they have done three things:
- They have made distinctions among themselves, becoming judges with evil thoughts.
- They have dishonoured the poor man.
- They have committed sin are are convicted by the law as transgressors.
Whew–that’s harsh. It’s also true.
James then asks his readers some pointed questions:
“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he promised to those who love him?”
“Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and drag you into court?”
“Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called?”
These are rhetorical questions aimed at First Century followers of Jesus in the midst of horrific persecution. The answer to each of them is, “Yes.” Is James saying there is something innately wrong with being rich–or with being poor, for that matter? Absolutely not, even though Jesus told his disciples, and maybe James himself, that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (MAR 10.25)
And that’s the point. If being rich isn’t any better than being poor, why should we show partiality to the rich? If being rich makes it harder to trust God and easier to mistreat people, why do I want to be that way?
James says the “royal law” (v. 8) is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If we show partiality, we violate that law and become lawbreakers. He makes the point that the same God who commands us not to commit adultery also commands us not to murder. So if we do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, we are still lawbreakers. One need only commit one offense in the criminal code to become a criminal. In God’s eyes, showing favouritism to the rich at the expense of the poor is a criminal offense. I may not kill my neighbour or sleep with his wife, but if I don’t love him–especially if he is poor–I violate the law of God because my love for others reflects my love for Him.
James concludes this section with these sobering words:
For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2.13 ESV)
Have a seat. I’ll plug in the kettle.