Cultural expectations are amazing things, especially when we aren’t entirely aware of them. What we define as normal, everyday behavior might strike someone who lives in another part of the world as weird or strange. The clothes that we wear send certain signals in our culture, but in other cultures, or even other classes here, a different signal is sent. We are trained from a very early age to evaluate other people based on appearance, and that can lead to some pretty big errors. The interesting thing is that every class and culture has its own signals that it is alert to and uses to judge things like status, etc. I remember when I was in Junior High the status symbol of choice was “Jordans”, if you had Nike shoes, you were doing OK. You could get away with Reebok or Adidas, but if your shoes came from payless, you were pretty much the target of choice for the bullies/other kids. These patterns of acceptance become part of our subconscious, and we use those symbols or brands to identify ourselves as a specific kind of person. The problem for us comes in when we allow the distinctions of the world to define how we behave towards each other as Christians. James must have run into that a lot as the leader of the Jerusalem community, enough that he felt the need to address this behavior specifically in his epistle to the church at large.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. 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? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13
For the most part, I think we are fairly good at not being as blatant as those James is addressing here in judging others among us based on clothing. But, let’s be honest with ourselves enough to say that we still default to identifying people based on our perception of their looks. Our culture has many different ways of promoting identity and you need to know that this branding is intentional. We are being market segmented, targeted, divided, separated and our relationships are being determined for us by an image conscious society bent on telling us that our identity is based on what we consume. That’s why I wanted to put the image of my friend Josh on our bulletin, and why I am dressed as I am today. When we look at the exterior and make judgments of people either their worth or motivations based on our interpretation of what we see, we are making distinctions among ourselves, using measures of judgment we are not qualified to employ. We as followers of Jesus have a much different way of determining value, we simply ask one question and the answer to that question is enough to tell us how we are called to treat any person regardless of their attire, degree of cleanliness, or any other outside circumstance. The question, very simply is “Was this person designed to bear the image and likeness of God?” The answer to that question tells us what a person is worth in God’s eyes, and to be frank, that opinion outweighs ours. James is telling us here that when we start measuring people by anything other than God’s love for them, we are entering into an area of deep sin, sin that opens us up to judgment.
James also points out that when we go along with the world’s value system we are also opening ourselves up to exploitation. It is not the powerless but those with an interest in maintaining their personal power that will try to use us for their own ends, twisting the gospel into a personal, social or political agenda. The church has made the mistake many times of courting the powers that be in an effort to change things from the inside only to find itself corrupted. I am not saying that we can’t change things from the inside, but am acknowledging the increased temptation to view the world from a perspective other than God’s when we start hanging around the halls of power, and the fact that what powerful people say their priorities are do not always match up to their actual priorities. There are plenty of Republicans who say they are against abortion on the campaign trail and don’t show that same support in office and there are plenty of Democrats who claim to care about the poor that also don’t show that same support in office. Wealth and power often demand preferential treatment and get it, but Jesus told us “Let it not be so among you.” when he washed the disciples feet. James loved his brother and wanted to see the church living well into Jesus teachings.
We have a call on us to live according to different priorities, to treat the person who shows up in shorts and a t-shirt the same as the person that comes in a three piece suit. To not show partiality based on worldly measures of value will be a challenge, but James reminds us that those worldly measures of value are rooted in sin, sin that is as damaging as murder and adultery to our souls and to our relationships. Think about that for a second…James is equating judging people based on appearance of status with murder and adultery. That is how damaging it is to impose the bonds of the cultural “pecking order” on others. We step away from the freedom we have in Christ to not be dominated by the expectations of class and culture, the freedom to not operate by the oppressive values of the world and willingly put the shackles back on, hobbling our ability to effectively represent the truth of Christ. Jesus has some truth for us to share with our culture friends.
- The truth that every human being can be in relationship with the God who loved them so much that he forsook His power in order to experience life as one of us, who through his experience of life, his teaching, his death and resurrection redeemed creation from the power of death.
- The truth that if we silence ourselves and listen for God’s voice, His Holy Spirit will speak to and through us.
- The truth that through Christ we can find a way to forgive and be forgiven.
- The truth that another world is not only possible, but that God’s kingdom is already here, breaking into our world with a value system based on God’s understanding of what it means to live the good life.
- The truth that we can be representatives of God’s kingdom, living in ways that reflect the true purposes of humanity, to love, honor and serve the true ruler of creation.
These truths will put us in conflict with the current political, social and economic systems of this world, at least those parts of the system that operate from greed, fear, hatred, lust, vengeance, and the devaluing of human life. So, yes following Christ will definitely not win us any popularity contests, but James gives us a promise. James’ promise echoes Jesus teaching in the Parable of the Unjust Servant and in the words of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. If we desire mercy from God’s judgment we must share that mercy with others. This is tough, because we are taught to take every advantage over others that we have and to use it for our benefit without any mercy. To go against that principle seems to go against our own self-interests. James and Jesus recognize the fallacy of looking at the world as though everything were a zero sum game. This fallacy is what drives our culture, that if I give someone else mercy there won’t be enough for me, that by showing mercy it will somehow diminish the overall supply of mercy. My reply to this comes from the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah: “21But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23) When we withhold mercy from others, no matter how right we think we are, we deny the renewing nature of the mercy of God and the power of the cross and empty tomb. When we deny God’s mercy to others we deny the resurrection itself and remove ourselves from its covering. We resubmit ourselves to the bondage of death and join the losing side.
Now I don’t know about you, but I am the competitive type. My wife and I actually need other people around when we play board games to maintain harmony in our marriage. That being said I don’t like losing. I want to be on the winning side, but this mercy stuff feels a lot like losing to me. What I keep forgetting is that Jesus, once and for all, changed the rules. The rules now say that the losers get to win, that those who could be considered under judgment get to receive mercy. The ultimate victory goes to mercy and judgment loses. When I honestly look into the depths of my soul, at the brokenness within, and understand just how much mercy God pours out on me I can only reply “Hallelujah grace like rain falls down on me. Hallelujah all my stains are washed away, are washed away.” Because I have received forgiveness and extend forgiveness, because I am taking the abundant mercy God has poured into me and sharing that mercy, giving it away to all who God sends my way, I get to participate in the ultimate victory of mercy over judgment, and so can you. We have opportunities every day to share mercy with others, from the people who cut us off in traffic to the person whose life decisions, political preferences, etc. we disagree with. We can start by not passing judgment and instead praying for everyone’s well-being. Eventually with enough prayer we can begin to show mercy and act for the well-being of people we would rather judge. God did not wait for us to come to him to show us mercy. No, God had mercy and acted while we were his enemies, can we who have received such mercy do any less? If you are anything like me mercy is not easy, it doesn’t seem natural. In our time of open worship I invite you to join me in confessing to God a lack of mercy and ask, as I will, that God so fills us with mercy that we cannot help but pour that overflow out into every person we are in contact with. If you so choose the steps here in front are open for those who wish to kneel, or you may do so right where you are. After the first 5 minutes of silence someone will be around with the mike if you feel led to speak. Remember to weigh your words carefully in the mercy of God. Let us enter into our time of communion with grateful hearts ready to receive and give God’s mercy.