Pastor Chris Tweitmann
We all know the saying, “Never judge a book by its cover”
but have we ever made a snap judgment against someone
based on a first impression?
We’ve all been taught that “Beauty is only skin deep,”
but don’t we still tend to base our opinions on initial appearances?
We all claim not to play favorites but in truth,
isn’t it easier to give our attention – our time and our energy
to those to whom we relate, those who think or act like us,
those with whom we agree?
In our current culture moment,
snap judgments, opinions based on initial appearances,
and playing favorites, seem to be more commonplace
than at any other time in human history.
The rise and influence of social media has given us
both the opportunity and the license to treat each other this way.
If we’re on social media, think back over this past week for a moment.
How many of our posts – either initiated by us or simply liked by us
– were skewed towards judging, condemning,
or at the very least favoring – not a particular issue but a person.
If we’re not on social media, then let us think back over this past week
and consider how we’ve assessed, how we’ve treated,
how we’ve spoken to and about all the people we’ve encountered
– either for a passing moment in traffic or in a store
or for a longer duration in some other setting.
How many of our thoughts, our comments, and maybe even our actions have communicated our judgment and our partiality,
have expressed our favoritism or lack thereof
for certain kinds of people over others?
Having taken a brief moment for self-reflection,
we are now primed to hear what James is about to share with us today.
It’s a word from the Lord that we are not going to want to hear
but we need to listen to – carefully. Here it is from James, chapter 2: 1 – 13.
James, gets right to it, doesn’t he?
His message to us through this passage is clear and concise
– leaving no room for confusion or interpretation.
James says, believers in Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.
No ifs, ands, or buts here.
James isn’t giving us a word of advice.
“You know, if you’re a Christian, you really shouldn’t play favorites.”
James is straight up declaring,
“Can you really call yourself a Christian,
can you actually claim to be following Jesus
if you show partiality to one person at the expense of another person?”
The Greek word James uses here, translated into English as “favoritism,”
is a word that means “to receive the face.”
The idea is engaging people at face value.
We look at them and immediately begin making judgments about them
based on external appearances.
As non-judgmental, as impartial as we might like to think we are,
we make judgments, we play favorites, based on appearance all the time.
In case we still have doubts, James reinforces his message
by way of a very practical example.
He poses a hypothetical situation to his original audience
– or perhaps describes a situation he knows already is going on.
Do we remember it?
The community of faith is gathered together for worship, for a meal,
for fellowship and then two visitors enter the gathering.
James delineates between these two people
in his description of how they are dressed.
As we like to say “Clothing makes the man or the individual,”
in James’ time, clothing was more than mere body covering;
it also was indicative of one’s role, status, and gender.
One person is dressed in fine clothes and is ornamented with a gold ring.
The other person is dressed in filthy, old clothes.
So basically, rich man. Poor man.
And how does the Christian community evaluate these two persons?
They judge both men by the face – based on their outward appearance.
Their favoritism of one person over and against the other is evidenced
by where each of them is invited to join the gathering.
Following not the way of Jesus
but the shame and honor culture of the Roman world,
the well-dressed man is given the traditionally honorable location
in a meeting place, which is having a seat.
Still to this day, when we wish to show someone respect or honor,
we offer them a seat – perhaps even our seat – at the table, on a bus, etc.
The shabbily dressed man, on the other hand, is not given a seat.
He is directed to stand or to sit on the floor.
His access to the community is restricted.
As a guest, he is being demeaned by being forced
to lower himself before others – to sit as James writes, at their feet.
In light of this example, James reveals the problem with Christians
showing favoritism or partiality.
First, when we discriminate among ourselves
– that is, as we accept some but reject others,
as we express to some “You’re worth my time” but to others, “You’re not,”
as we form cliques and divide people up into groups
we prefer to associate with,
as we discriminate among ourselves,
James insists we are fostering prejudices and rivalries,
establishing a hierarchy based on power and influence,
and thus fracturing, not only the unity of the Body of Christ,
but also contribute to the widening divisions within our common humanity.
Secondly, James adds,
we “become judges with evil thoughts.”
In other words, when we as Christians claim favoritism toward people,
to sit in judgment over others, we’ve claimed something
that is God’s prerogative alone.
To be judgmental toward others is to put ourselves in the place of God,
which is idolatry.
And if we are wondering, who or what is the idol we are worshipping,
the answer is ourselves.
We make ourselves the idol because we are playing God.
When we are judgmental towards others,
we are comparing ourselves to other people
and the standard we use is our own preferences, opinions, and likes.
In other words, the standard we use to judge others is our own ego
– how we view ourselves in relation to others.
And notice, James pulls no punches,
when he declares such judgments not just to be wrong but EVIL.
Let us think about that before the next time we post on social media.
Let us keep this in mind
the next time we are tempted to size up another person too quickly.
To be judgmental towards others is to make ourselves an idol
because we are worshipping and following our point of view
and not the Lord’s point of view.
This leads us back to where James started in this passage,
when he declared playing favorites is inconsistent with following Jesus
– because it goes against everything Jesus did or taught us.
Because here’s the thing. God does not play favorites.
Throughout the Bible, the Lord describes Himself as an impartial God.
All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy,
God through Moses put it this way:
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,
the great, the mighty, and the awesome God,
who is not partial and takes no bribe.
He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the traveler,
giving him food and clothing.” (Deut 10:17-19).
Whereas we are prone to size up others
and either accept, pursue, or dismiss them, our Creator never does this.
God doesn’t receive the face; God looks at the heart.
Jesus assured of us this,
that our Heavenly Father looks not at the outward appearance,
such as the color of one’s skin or even the actions of a person,
our God assesses the content of our character,
looking to see His reflection – His image in whom we have been created,
to see Christ in us,
in whose character we are being remade
– shining forth through how we treat each other.
Impartiality originates with God.
Let’s be clear about something in this passage,
James’ choice to use a socio-economic example is not at all random.
And when James says,
“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…”
He is not suggesting that God shows favoritism towards the poor
over and against the rich.
No, the point James is making is that God favors all persons
– especially and particularly including those
we often dislike, dismiss, and/or despise
– namely, the poor and the afflicted.
The certainty that God shows no partiality or favoritism is
first anchored in God’s relationship with Israel
– particularly in liberating them from Egypt and creating them into a nation.
Israel did nothing to merit or deserve God’s favor.
In the same way, this is the message of the Gospel for all humanity,
that our Exodus – our forgiveness, our salvation thanks to
what Jesus did for us through the Cross, the Resurrection, and Pentecost
has nothing whatsoever to do with us
For while we poor – down and out – not currying the Lord’s favor
or somehow earning God’s partiality toward us,
while we were yet sinners, God came to us in Christ
and rescued us from sin, death, and the devil.
What James is calling out here is that our favoritism,
our partiality – not God’s – tends to be
towards the rich and against the poor.
This is what James is getting at when he rebukes us
for trying to keep up with the Jones,
for chasing after the rich or trying to make ourselves rich
rather than embracing the poverty we are share
due to our mutual brokenness and sin.
James is trying to help us understand
it is only when we realize we are all poor and in need,
that we become rich in the grace and love of Christ.
It is only as we more fully appreciate the favor
that God has shown not just to us – but to all the world
– that we realize favoring one person over another makes no sense.
Grace is not about partiality.
In truth, what makes grace, grace, is that it is given without partiality.
God extends favor to all the world without discrimination or condition.
And as recipients of such grace, as followers of Jesus,
we must therefore go and do likewise – reflecting the Lord’s favor,
extending the grace of God, to everyone we meet
and not just those whom we prefer or like.
And yet at the same time, recognizing our tendency,
our temptation to favor people like us or whom we wish we were,
over and against people whose living conditions and circumstances
represent where we don’t want to be,
we must have particular sensitivity towards
those who are suffering, who are lacking, who are in need.
Beloved, as followers of Jesus, we have been called – commissioned
– to care for the oppressed, to minister to the hurting,
and to set the captives free.
In the remaining verses of our passage, verses 8 – 13,
James places the whole matter of favoritism under what he calls
“the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
James is appealing to his older brother,
Jesus’ summation of the Law of God,
which goes all the way back to Leviticus, and that summation is LOVE
– love for God that expresses itself,
that is demonstrated through loving one’s neighbor
as we love ourselves, that is, as we are loved by God in Christ.
To truly love our neighbor as ourselves – to love like God loves us,
favoritism cannot be involved.
When we choose to love – not always feel it
but consciously, abidingly chose to love others
– not simply those we like or those we understand,
but choosing to love by divine guidance and empowerment,
all those around us regardless of circumstance or affinity,
even as strangers or enemies to us,
James says we are doing right.
Once again, James is highlighting a core theme of his letter
– that faith that does not result in consistent action is no faith at all.
James isn’t telling us that choosing to love all persons
without favoritism or partiality earns our salvation.
James IS saying, if we profess to be loved by Jesus,
then the love we receive from Christ ought to be visible
and generous in our sharing it everyone.
The fruit, the evidence that we are rooted, that we are abiding in Jesus
is revealed in our love expressed toward all persons.
At the same time, James in these final verses also, is warning us.
If we choose to play favorites,
If we continue to follow the world’s value system
that shows partiality to those who have
while disfavoring those who have not,
if we dare to keep dividing the world into “us vs. them,”
then we are choosing to SIN.
Hello! Did we hear that, Church?
Showing partiality to some at the expense of others,
Dividing this world into “us vs. them” is SIN.
Do we believe that? Do we act like that’s true?
Because James doesn’t stop there.
James goes on to add, if we choose NOT to live by the law of freedom,
the way of Jesus, the law of love,
if we choose to show favoritism and partiality
then we will judged by God not on the basis of His love
but on the basis of His judgment
– His assessment of us
not according to our standard, our ego
– but according to the standard of His character and His will.
Do any of us think we measure up to that standard?
Just in case, any of us actually do,
James wants to understand that if we’re playing favorites,
we’ve already failed – broken the rules.
James’ brief example from God’s Top Ten rules for life is
simply to make this point.
We can’t pick and choose when it comes to living by God’s standards.
It’s not either/or. It’s all or nothing.
Therefore, the only way to live, the only way we can live
– that we receive forgiveness, that we experience salvation
– is by abiding and following the law of love
– which is the way of Jesus.
We either become, by the grace of God,
a community shaped by the love of Christ,
we exist as a community that is judged by God
on the basis of the very favoritism, we show to some and deny to others.
The way we behave toward people reflects
what we really believe about God.
How tempting it can be to convince ourselves
God hates all the same people that we hate.
Whom do we believe is beyond the favor of God’s love?
For whomever it is, in our judgment of them,
we place ourselves as far away from the Lord
as we already perceive them to be.
Who do we favor? Where do we show partiality?
It’s timely question in light of the times in which live
– and all that is going on in our world right now.
“She’s fake. He’s a loser.”
“Those people always lie.” “That group are troublemakers.”
“Those Catholics aren’t really Christians.”
“Those denominational Christians are really spiritual
– deep and mature in their faith.”
“Most homeless people are lazy and probably on drugs.”
“People who are wealthy only care about money and power.”
“All those protestors are violent anarchists.”
“All those who are in authority cannot be trusted.”
“She’s a bleeding heart liberal, a closet socialist.”
“He’s a narrow-minded conservative, a closet bigot.”
As sinners, broken people, works in progress,
we all bear certain prejudices against some groups of people
even as we more favorably disposed towards others.
Our favoritism, our partiality, can be anything: money, race,
gender, religion, age, lifestyle, nationality, ethnicity, or politics.
Party politics especially – something that was once but one of
many factors in our engagement with each other as a society
has become, in many ways, THE determining criteria
as to how we evaluate and treat each other.
And the 24-hour news cycle has not increased
the amount of news that is being reported;
it has increased the amount of time
we are subject to people criticizing each other
in effort to win the debate of the moment.
More and more, the majority of the messages,
we both hear and express these days are partisan
– designed to divide rather than unite
– demanding that we pick a side and always insisting
the side being presented is the only one that is right.
But James has a decidedly different message for us today.
That partiality and the Gospel do not mix.
God has no favorites, for each of us is God’s own beloved child.
That we have no justification for favoring
another individual or group over another because
that’s not how God in Christ came to us,
that’s not how Jesus treated us.
Jesus never did that with us.
God in His lavish and indiscriminate love never excludes people
because they are unclean, unworthy, or disrespectable.
Therefore, neither should we.
Playing favorites tears apart the Body of Christ
and damages our witness to the world.
As followers of Jesus, let us love each other
as Christ continues to love us without conditions
– even when we are at our worst.
Let us refuse to drink the Kool-Aid that insists
on seeing and treating each other in this world as “us versus them.”
Let not be tempted not to withhold from others
even a fraction of the deep, healing grace we experience
thanks to Jesus.
Let’s not dream or imagine a community that loves like Christ.
Let’s become, by the power and direction of the Word and the Spirit,
the Body of Christ that cannot but love everyone like Jesus.
For when we favor each and every person we meet,
and recognize that person as someone God loves so deeply,
that He became human just to die for them – the same as us,
when we love like that, we become part of something beyond ourselves.
We become part of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to introduce.