August 31, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Kalos panta pepoieken
“He has done everything well.”
That’s the bottom line reaction of the crowds that were still thronging around Jesus here in Mark 7, but it seems a bit over the top when you think about it. After all, we’re by no means sure how well-known Jesus’ exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter was. From the looks of the text, this did not cause any particular buzz in the crowd (though maybe it became well-known after all). We do know that Jesus’ healing of the deaf and dumb man created a bit of a stir and got noised around rather quickly (despite Jesus’ typical attempt to keep it all hush-hush).
But even taken together, it’s a little hard to see how these two miracles would cause as grand a pronouncement as “He has done everything well!” And yet . . . maybe these people were saying more than they knew. Because especially when I look at the Greek of that phrase, I hear echoes of Revelation 21:5: kaino poio panta, “I make all things new.” Maybe the people that day, even though they had seen but the merest snippet of Jesus’ healing and restorative work, saw farther and deeper into a bright new future and toward a time when not just one woman’s daughter and one man’s sad condition would be healed but when all things—ta panta—would be made new.
And, of course, at the end of the day, that is what all of Jesus’ healings were pointing toward. As we all know, even when Jesus was on this earth, not every sick person was healed, not every death was prevented (or reversed)—no one could claim that so long as Jesus was on the earth, “everything was done well” to each and every person. In fact, though we know and savor the miracles of Jesus, they end up being relatively few in number, touching an exceedingly small sliver of the people in Palestine during his lifetime.
So why did Jesus do miracles at all? When I was in Kindergarten, my teacher, Mrs. Luyk, had a rule: if you were going to bring candy into the classroom, you had better have enough to share with everyone. True, that tended to limit how often anyone saw candy in the classroom but at least when it did show up, no one of us was left on the outside looking in on a lucky person or two smacking his or her lips over some M&Ms!
So if Jesus did not have enough healing to go around—or, better said, if it had never been his intention to extend his (presumably limitless) healing power to everyone—then why do these miracles at all? Why leave so many unhealed people on the outside looking in?
The answer to such a question is fraught with enough complexity that I won’t even pretend to offer up anything like a complete answer here. But John at least was surely in touch with part of the answer when he chalked up all such works as “signs,” as arrows pointing toward something larger and grander that one day Jesus, as God’s anointed Christ, would bring for all people. But getting there was going to be tough and would finally require something more than miracles that dazzled and astonished and titillated the masses. For reasons that traffic in deeply mysterious realms, what would be needed to make all things new one day would be the very sacrifice that Jesus will begin to talk about in Mark’s very next chapter.
Of course, no sooner does Jesus start to talk about taking up a cross and leading a downwardly mobile life of sacrifice and the very crowds who were so wowed at the end of Mark 7 start to thin out. That will keep happening until finally even the inner circle falls away and the Son of God who had healed so many others will be utterly alone on a cross, taunted to “save” himself the same way he had saved so many others. His refusal to do any such thing that day at Golgotha looked like defeat, certainly to those who were hurling the taunts. But in the great mystery of salvation, that apparent defeat finally spells victory for the whole lot of us, for the entire creation, for every creature that will one day thrill to hear not only that “he has done everything well” but that behold, he has made everything new!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
In the last few years a number of articles have been published that claim Mark 7 shows us a time when a woman actually became Jesus’ teacher. Jesus had been carrying around in his head some incomplete assumptions about who should, or should not, receive his ministry. So this lowly Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman challenged Jesus, called him on the carpet, and then, amazingly enough, Jesus changes his mind as a result.
This interpretation has proven controversial. It makes people nervous. Was Jesus capable of really learning something new? Or did being divine make Jesus immune to any real learning? When Jesus was in Kindergarten, did he only pretend to learn his ABCs for the sake of his teacher (when really he already knew every language in the world)? Could he ever really have been startled or surprised? We’ve all had those times when we’ve been so lost in thought that when suddenly the phone rings or someone taps you on the shoulder, you about jump out of your skin! Could that ever happen to Jesus? Or did he always know ahead of time when someone was going to knock on the front door or quietly come up from behind?
These are sticky questions! And, of course, we should admit that it’s one thing to wonder about whether Jesus really did learn math when he was in school, and it’s one thing to ponder whether or not a loud noise could ever make him jump. But it is quite another matter to wonder whether Jesus could have learned a new thing related to something as vital as the very scope of his own ministry. Yet Mark 7 foists this issue before us. What shall we say in answer to these thorny questions?
First, is it possible that this encounter did help Jesus to widen his own perspective? Did he really think that his main focus needed to be on his own “children,” his own kith and kin? Although this specific issue is more weighty, there is a sense in which this question is similar to other questions regarding Jesus’ ability to be surprised or startled. But if so, it is very important to distinguish between those types of things and sin. It is no sin to make an honest mistake, no sin to get startled, and no sin to be unaware of something. So if Jesus really did think at some point that he was supposed to limit himself to Israel, that was no sin. Maybe part of what it meant for Jesus to be fully human was that he had the genuine ability to learn, that he willingly allowed limitations to be placed on his own knowledge even as, for the time he was on this earth, he allowed himself to be limited to being in just one place at a time (instead of being everywhere at once as is normally the case with God).
We know for sure that by becoming human, God’s Son introduced possibilities into his existence that had not been there before, chief among which was the possibility of suffering and, finally, even of dying. Jesus shared our sinful situation without himself being sinful. That was true in terms of his vulnerability to suffering, and perhaps it was true also in terms of his ability to learn through experience the same as we all do in life.
But as interesting as all of that may be, the real lesson of this incident–the main reason why Mark made sure to record this story in the first place–is to challenge all of us in the church to imitate Jesus in being willing to extend the gospel to all people, starting with the ones who, for whatever the reason, we may initially deem beyond the pale. Maybe Jesus really did learn something through this woman, but what is vital to see is that Jesus’ heart did not change from stingy to loving. Jesus was always loving. It was more a matter of priorities that got shuffled around. Mark wants us to see that even though we may think we know exactly what (and who) needs to come first in our ministries, the main thing is to remain open to the people God sends our way. We, too, may think that when it comes to “first things first,” taking care of in-house folks has a higher profile than reaching out to the community. But if we, like the Lord Jesus, are going to be open to God’s Spirit, then we need to be willing to change everything if that’s what it takes to be loving toward everyone we meet.
As preachers, we may feel on “thin ice” when dealing with some of the complexities of this story. But we err if we too quickly wash out the apparent scandal of this story by saying that Jesus was only kidding, was just joshing around in referring to this woman as a dog. We don’t need to attribute sin to Jesus to suggest that he may have been reflecting the conventional wisdom of his day. In any event, the grace of Jesus shines through the most clearly in the story’s conclusion. Whatever his contemporaries thought, whatever the disciples thought, whatever may or may not have been in his own mind when first countenancing this foreign woman, in the end Jesus shows that he is everyone’s Savior by healing this woman’s daughter right there on the spot. We can but pray that our own encounters with people from the outside will consistently end just this graciously.
Mark continues to throw in his favorite adverb euthus or “immediately” in these two stories. Deep though we are into Jesus’ ministry now, it’s clear that even as in Mark 1 & 2 the ministry took off like a rocket, so things continue to happen in rapid-fire fashion no matter where Jesus goes. When Jesus shows up—even when the place to which he comes is way out in the sticks and even in foreign regions—IMMEDIATELY great things begin to happen to reveal the presence of the kingdom of God!
From Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels (Cowley Publications, 1997, pp. 136-140.)
“Sometimes I wonder if the miracle stories in the Bible do more harm than good. They are spectacular stories, most of them, and there is a lot of comfort to be had from watching Jesus still the storm, heal the sick, raise the dead. His miracles remind us that the way things are is not the way they will always be . . . The problem with miracles is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own . . . [But] most people do not get a miracle, and one of the meanest things religious people can do is to blame it on a lack of faith. I remember when I was a chaplain on a cancer ward at Georgia Baptist Hospital that we finally had to start frisking visitors at the door. A couple of patients had complained that perfect strangers were coming into their rooms, holding hands around their beds, and praying for an increase in their clearly inadequate faith. It turned out a local church was doing this—uninvited—as a part of their healing ministry, only it did not have a healing effect. It had a bludgeoning effect as people who were already sick got a strong dose of guilt and shame to go along with their chemotherapy. I believe the church people were well-intentioned. I also believe they had gotten mixed up about what causes miracles. They thought faith made miracles happen. They thought miracles happen along the same lines as those strength tests you used to see at county fairs. It was all a matter of how hard you could hit the thing with the sledgehammer. If you were really strong, you could ring the bell. And if you were not, well, better luck next time . . . It helps me to remember that Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. ‘For you, all things are possible,’ he prayed to his abba. ‘Remove this cup from me.’ Only when he opened his eyes, the cup was still there. Did he lack faith? I do not think so. The miracle was that he drank the cup, believing in the power of God more than he believed in his own. I do not expect any of us will stop praying for miracles. I hope not because the world needs all the miracles it can get. Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is simply no formula for success, which is a real relief for those of us who cannot seem to ring the bell.”
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“The early bird catches the worm.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“You only go around once. Grab for the gusto!”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Sound familiar? They should as these are among the better known modern-day proverbs that have a lot of currency throughout North America. I am not familiar enough with other cultures to know if in modern times there are equivalent sayings in other countries and languages but what I know for sure is that in especially the United States, proverbs like the ones quoted above are both common and revealing in terms of attitudes toward wealth and, conversely, toward poverty.
I mention these here because by scooping up three sets of verses from Proverbs 22 that have something or another to do with money and the poor, the Lectionary seems to be steering us toward thinking about this. Of course, in Proverbs, that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. According to an oft-told story, it is said that at a London restaurant, Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen because “it lacked a theme.”
Anyone who ever considers preaching from most any snippet of The Book of Proverbs knows the feeling.
Yes, the overarching theme of the book is Wisdom. Beyond that, though, it’s a little hard to string together any sizeable stretch of verses in this book and be able to come up with a common theme for that segment of Proverbs. Instead the various proverbs that make up this book tend to have a little of this and a little of that with a dash of something else thrown in every few verses such that it’s all-but impossible to find something resembling a theme on which to base a unified sermon.
Still, by doing a little editing of Proverbs 22, the Lectionary is steering us toward a theme. But what is striking about many of these biblical proverbs that have anything at all to do with these themes is how at variance they are with so many of the proverbs that are popular today such as the ones I quoted above.
Consider: A lot of biblical proverbs—as well as the laws of Israel and the later tirades of the prophets against Israel for not following those laws more diligently—presume that there will be poor people at any given time and that they are to be accorded special rights. The Bible does not generally encourage big investigations into what made Person X poor in the first place or what he or she should do now to turn that situation around. I suppose the Bible does not rule out those things, either. And if in a given situation you were able to help someone get lifted out of poverty on account of you having helpfully diagnosed what was keeping him trapped in cycles of poverty, that would of course be the right and fitting thing to do.
But in general the Bible’s position seems to be that there in all of life you will sooner or later encounter poor people and when you do, you have to deal with them in certain ways, mostly in ways that trend toward all things generous (and most certainly very far away from all things exploitative or punitive or cruel).
So the proverbs that were once current in ancient Israel and thus enshrined in the Bible mostly take that tack. As just mentioned, however, American proverbs in particular don’t typically advocate on behalf of the poor or push people in the direction of generosity of spirit over against the poor. Maybe that’s because the proverbs we most prize these days all tend to run in another direction in terms of how well-motivated individuals can be the captains of their own destiny so as to ensure a rich future (and not an impoverished one).
Our modern proverbs tell us that when people succeed, it’s their own doing (and in the current political climate we’re hearing a steady drumbeat of talk about how vital it is to celebrate the success of THE INDIVIDUAL with no help from government or anybody else, thank you very much). By proxy, then, we believe that those who do not succeed have mostly only themselves to blame. Hence we maybe are not inclined actively to exploit such poor people, but neither do we always feel any peculiar obligation to craft policies or laws to give them a lot of extra help. In a land of opportunity, those who fail do so because they didn’t have the sense to open the door when opportunity knocked (and another popular proverb tells us this may happen just once as it is) or they lack the gumption to go out and make their own luck, create their own opportunities.
Of course, the Book of Proverbs is large and sprawling enough that tucked into various corners of this book is a lot of good advice on not being lazy, not being a sluggard. So it’s not as though there is no connection—even in this book—between a person’s actions (or lack thereof) and the consequences that may accrue to that person as a result. Among its many charms, the Book of Proverbs does tend to catch up a great deal of life!
But Proverbs 22:2 reminds us that at the end of the day, God is the God of rich and poor alike, and both must look to God either in gratitude for what they have or for help in getting what they lack (but desperately need to live). That proverb is meant to level the playing field, to help rich and poor alike to see each other at eye level and in compassion. The wise person knows that once that happens, there may not be a one-size-fits-all way forward for every conceivable situation a person may encounter, but the options of what you will do in those varying situations will almost certainly move more in the Proverbs 22 direction than in those directions in which we often feel the most tempted to go today.
The Book of Proverbs offers a concentrated graduate course in the art of living. It is an education founded on the premise that life adds up to something coherent and good, stable and full of shalom because there is a Creator God who made each person and each thing. Further, God made each person and each thing to work in certain ways (and not in others) so that if everybody functions the way they were made to function, life would get webbed together into a marvelously complex, inter-locking system of mutual affirmation. There simply is a wise way and a foolish way to do most anything.
That’s why most of the Bible’s proverbs are not prescriptive but descriptive. They don’t command you to do something but simply notice what works and what flops. The wise one takes notes on life, not to answer the question, “What should I do?” so much as to answer the question, “Hmmm . . . what’s going on here?” So, for instance, a wise person might watch all those shouting-match (and sometimes chair-throwing!) daytime talk shows in which families appear on the show so that the whole world can watch them swear at each other, take swings at each other, and just generally disintegrate on national TV. And a wise person might note that nine times out of ten some form of deviant sexuality lies at the prurient and puerile base of those dreadful spectacles.
In those situations you could swing in with the Ten Commandments and start barking out moral imperatives to the people. But a wise one would perhaps start with the straightforward observation, “Something isn’t working there at a very basic level. What is it? These people are not happy. They are not united. Their lives are deeply disjointed and as a result a good many of them are having no fun at all. Let’s sift through the layers to see where things started to go wrong and maybe then we can figure out a better way so that you can all live together happily under one roof instead of falling apart in front of strangers who are turning your tragedy into their afternoon entertainment.”
The overall point is that we try to order our lives around various principles and proverbs in the belief that what we are finally aiming at is a coherent, cohesive life which fits with the larger picture of creation which God himself sketched at the dawn of time. The fear of the Lord means we believe that there just is a certain way that life is supposed to go. Wisdom and the pursuit of a prudent life stems from and depends on the up-front belief that despite how messed up and fragmented life often looks, in the long run all those diverse pieces belong to a single puzzle, the picture of which is held in the mind of the one true God in Christ Jesus the Lord.
Because in the New Testament it becomes clear that Jesus is the Wisdom of God incarnate. Somehow, despite the odd way in which he lived and despite the scandalous quirk of his death (which seemed like the ultimate dead end), somehow this Jesus started to put the puzzle pieces back together again in a way more dramatic than anyone before or since ever managed to do. In Christ, the apostle Paul liked to say, God has turned the wisdom of the world into folly. One piece of conventional wisdom that Jesus overturned was the loopy notion that life is whatever a given individual makes of it.
Not true, Jesus said. Life is what God makes of it. The fear of that Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In Christ it is the end, the goal, of all wisdom, too. Blessed are those who pay attention, for theirs is the big picture that just is the new creation!
Author: Doug Bratt
“Appearances can be deceiving.” Those who preach and teach Psalm 125 will certainly find numerous examples of that old adage that fit our hearers’ own particular contexts. A neighbor who’s going bankrupt may live “high on the hog” right until he files for Chapter 11. A friend who has terminal cancer may look relatively healthy until just before she dies. The evil one whose doom Christ sealed at the cross and empty tomb wreaks havoc across our world.
Psalm 125 begins by asserting that “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” This uses a pair of vivid similes to profess the solidity of those who trust in the Lord who constantly surrounds them with God’s loving care.
Yet very quickly the poet also alludes to some kind of apparent “shaking” of God’s sons and daughters. After all, in verse 3 she notes the scepter of the wicked is “over the land allotted to the righteous.” So it almost seems as if the poet recognizes that it’s the wicked rather than the righteous who at least seem firmly entrenched, who “cannot be shaken.”
The psalmist doesn’t explicitly identify the nature of this “scepter of the wicked.” Yet mention of the “land allotted to the righteous” on which that scepter remains echoes descriptions of the land of promise. After all, God gave that land to God’s Israelite sons and daughters after God freed their ancestors from Egyptian slavery. So by referring to the “scepter of the wicked,” the poet may be alluding to Israel’s exile from the land of promise. Or is she hinting at foreign rule over that land?
While those who preach and teach Psalm 125 may not be able to identify its historical context, we can identify ways in which God’s promises seem threatened or even broken. While God promises to be our children’s God, some of them find ways to avoid being God’s faithful sons and daughters. While God promises to never leave or forsake “those who trust in the Lord,” sometimes God’s children feel desperately alone. While God promises to protect society’s most vulnerable citizens, they sometimes suffer so deeply.
In fact, it sometimes seems as if it’s evil that’s unshakable and eternal. After all, the psalmist doesn’t just speak of the shaking that is the scepter of the wicked being on the land allotted to the righteous. He also alludes to one of evil’s insidious characteristics: it reproduces itself, sometimes even in righteous people. Evil, in other words, sometimes begets more evil. So the poet fears that the scepter of the wicked may induce righteous people to “use their hands to do evil.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 125 can think of countless examples of this. Consider the evil of American slavery. That wicked specter that remained over the United States for more than two centuries induced countless righteous people to do evil. Untold numbers of otherwise God-fearing people owned slaves, approved of slave holding or simply stayed silent while slavery flourished.
Yet in the face of such wicked scepters, the psalmist asserts that things are not as they seem. While evil may seem to stand on more solid footing than righteousness, the poet asserts it’s God and God’s righteousness that finally stands firm. So the poet dares to assert that the “scepter of the wicked will not remain over the land allotted to the righteous.” Someday God’s peace will reign over that land.
Verse 4’s plea for God to do good to those who do good grows out of the fertile soil that is the trust the Spirit has given the poet. She begs God to act justly in a world that overflows with injustice because she trusts that God surrounds “the righteous.” Yet verse 5 seems to return to a profession of faith: God will banish those who turn to crooked ways right along with the evildoers. Perhaps, however, as Carol Bechtel Reynolds notes, verse 5 means, “Those who live in their crooked ways, let God make go the way of evildoers.” If that’s true, verses 4-5 form one prayer that grows out of the psalmist’s trust that God will get the last word.
Psalm 125 closes with the psalmist’s prayer: “Peace be upon Israel.” It echoes Numbers 6:24-26’s beloved priestly blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” With that closing prayer, the poet returns to the themes of verses 1-2: peace in no small part consists of eternal steadfastness and God’s surrounding presence.
Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford notes that an interesting wordplay brackets Psalm 125. Verse 1 asserts that those who trust in the Lord, like Mt. Zion, can’t be “shaken.” That word is from the Hebrew root mavat that can also mean, “waver,” “totter” or “quake.” In verse 5 the poet insists that those who “turn [aside] to crooked ways” will be “banished.” The Hebrew root of that word, nith, can mean to bend, turn aside or bow down. Those Hebrew words and roots are similar enough to create a kind of wordplay that contrasts the upright in hearts’ immovability with the wicked who can quake and totter.
Psalm 125 is one of contrasts. It contrasts those who trust in the Lord, are righteous and upright with wickedness and those who turn aside to crooked ways. In that way it echoes Psalm 1:6’s assertion: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
This psalm speaks to those who are oppressed and tempted toward hopelessness. The lives of those who worship the Lord sometimes feel about as secure as those of people who walk through quicksand. Psalm 125, however, asserts that God graciously pays attention to us, finally granting us God’s perfect shalom. In that way this psalm plays a role that’s similar to worship. After all, in corporate worship God reminds God’s sometimes battered worshipers that God really does pay attention, that God and God’s loving ways and purposes do get the last word.
That makes Psalm 125 a comforting one for a modern church that lives in a society in which Christendom, if it ever really existed, is dead. It also offers comfort to a church that’s besieged on every side in large parts of the world. “The scepter of the wicked” may seem to rule immense parts of that world. Individual Christians may sometimes feel as if we live our lives under siege. Psalm 125, however, insists that since God endures, God’s children, by God’s amazing grace, will also endure.
A few years ago the media was aflame with reports of an 11 year-old perhaps mentally impaired Christian whom Pakistani officials had jailed for allegedly desecrating the Quran. Her desperate plight seemed to belie the psalmist’s assertion that those who trust in the Lord cannot be shaken. Her small Christian community’s forced flight from its homes made some wonder if God surrounds them. To them the “scepter of the wicked” seemed to be in firm control.
Yet a group of Pakistani Muslim clerics and scholars joined members of other Pakistani faith communities to call for justice for the girl. Even apparent radicals whom some might call “wicked” joined in calls for a careful investigation that might lead to her release. Isn’t it interesting how God sometimes “surrounds” God’s sons and daughters?
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Author: Stan Mast
In this age of growing income inequality, when the gap between the 1% and the 99% seems to widen daily, these words of James 2 are a hot button text. We’ll have to be careful how we push the button. If we blunt the message of this text because we don’t want to offend our affluent parishioners, we will silence the prophetic word of God about the poor. If, on the other hand, we wield this text like a machete because we’re so passionate about the plight of the poor, we may unnecessarily wound church members whom God has blessed with wealth.
How can we balance prophetic boldness with pastoral sensitivity? James shows us the way by his repeated use of the term “brothers.” Three times he addresses these people for whom he has such sharp words as “my brothers.” That is, he identifies with them even as he brings the Word of God to them, sort of like a priest in the Old Testament, or like the great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Jesus came “full of grace and truth,” says John 1. Effective preaching must approach a hot button text like this with Christ-like grace and truth. As we faithfully and unflinchingly preach its hard truth, we must preach with graceful love for both rich and poor.
It is interesting to note that James does not approach the issue of income inequality with great pronouncements about its societal causes and its political cures, although, of course, the church in its prophetic role does make such pronouncements these days. Rather, James focuses on what the church must do when income inequality comes through the front door of the church. While there is a place for social justice ministries that attempts to change the shape of society, James begins here with the church’s practice of compassionate hospitality within its own walls. Before the church will able to change society, we must deal with income inequality within the church. Otherwise, we’ll have no credibility.
Please don’t take these cautious preliminary comments as a downplaying of the importance of this whole issue of poverty and wealth. In fact, it is so important that James roots his words about wealth-based “favoritism” in a very high doctrine of Christ. “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” Critics of this epistle often point out how thin and “strawy” (Luther) it is; there is little specifically “Christian stuff.” It could have been written by and for a Jewish group. Indeed, it undoubtedly was, as 1:l clearly says. But these were Christian Jews, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
The order of the Greek text is striking. It speaks of our Lord Jesus Christ, “the glory.” Commentators have wildly diverse ideas about the import of “the glory.” I like Sophie Law’s theory that “the glory” is a reference to the great theophanies of the Old Testament. Jesus, then, is the glory of God in human form. Jesus is not just glorious; he is “the glory,” the kabod, the shekinah, the visible manifestation of the invisible God. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) James bases his whole message about the rich and the poor on this high Christology. How we deal with income inequality in the church is not a peripheral matter. It is central to the Gospel of Christ, “who became poor so that we might become rich.”
The “glory” of God did not show favoritism when he became flesh and dwelled among Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor. Consistency requires the same of us, his followers. Consistency is the issue here. Our treatment of the poor (and, I will add, the rich) must be consistent with the ministry of Christ on our behalf, with our experience of God’s election and the world’s persecution, with the law of love, and with a living faith. That’s the progression of thought in James’ powerful words about how we treat the poor in church.
He begins with a vivid example of the issue so that no one can be mistaken about what he means by “favoritism.” The Greek word there is a Christian neologism, found nowhere outside the New Testament. It is prosopolempsiais, meaning literally “receiving the face.” It probably has to do with judging people on the basis of their face, accepting or rejecting them because of their appearance, judging a book by its cover. That is exactly the content of James’ example.
Two people come into your meeting, your synagogue in the Greek, probably a worship service, though some scholars see signs of a judicial meeting here. For purposes of this sermon, the former makes more practical sense. I see these men not as members, but as visitors, since they don’t have a regular place in the building. An usher meets them and shows them to an appropriate place from which they can observe and maybe participate in the worship. There is nothing wrong with this picture, until we learn that the usher has done his job in a way that is inconsistent with every part of the Christian faith.
One of the men is wearing a gold ring (literally “gold fingered” ala James Bond) and fine clothing. He receives special treatment and is shown to a good seat. The other man is dirt poor (the Greek refers not to the working poor, dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, but to a homeless person, dressed in rags and smelling of stale beer and rancid body odor). The usher gets one whiff of this vagrant and orders him to stand in a far corner away from the crowd or to sit on the floor, even though there are clearly seats available.
Based purely on appearances, on those tell-tale signs of wealth and poverty, the church has “received” these two men very differently. The NIV translation uses a word that has become anathema in our culture. “Have you not discriminated among yourselves?” Yes, there is a place for discrimination, for exercising careful judgment about art and food and clothes. But James is talking about the discrimination that arrives at judgment about people based on “evil thoughts,” thoughts about people’s worth based on their money or their class or their race or their sex. The church has been guilty of such discrimination for centuries now. And we have always found a way to justify it. “Those people are lazy, or smelly, or dishonest, or genetically inferior, or mentally ill.” There’s always a good reason to treat people differently based on the cover of the book.
But James will have none of it. He marshals argument after argument against favoritism based on income inequality. First, there is the experience of these Christians. Think about your own lives, your own election by God to be part of his Kingdom. Whom did God choose? “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom promised to those who love him?” God didn’t pay attention to your wealth when he elected you. Indeed, he showed “a preferential option for the poor,” as many contemporary social justice advocates put it. That is a powerful phrase with deep roots in Scripture, but it’s also a phrase filled with difficulty. For one thing, James does not say that God chooses all poor people to be in his kingdom. James specifically says that God chose these folks to be rich in faith. And they love God. That is not the case with all poor folks. Further, poverty is not a condition for election, any more than wealth disqualifies someone from being elected by God. Again, the Bible often speaks equivocally about the poor; sometimes they are materially poor, sometimes poor in spirit. So, we must be careful how we speak about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” But James is urging these Christians to treat the poor equally, based on their own experience of God’s electing love.
Further, he refers to their experience at the hands of the rich in their society. You are showing a “preferential option for the rich” fawning over them when they happen to drop by your church. But in the rest of your life, isn’t it the rich who persecute you and blaspheme the very name of our “glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Now, of course, that is an accurate sociological observation of that moment in time and space. It is not a blanket condemnation of the rich. Indeed, some of God’s most illustrious saints have been incredibly rich people; think of Abraham, Job, and David. As we preach this text, we must be careful not to tar all the rich with the same brush. James is merely saying that their experience with the hateful and unbelieving rich should keep them from giving preferential treatment to the rich at the expense of the poor. Treat them both with the same hospitable Christian love.
That love is the focus of James’ next major argument. The law of love absolutely requires equal treatment of both rich and poor. He refers to “the royal law found in Scripture,” distinguishing God’s law from the law of the Empire. The law of the land may countenance discrimination, whether based on race or gender or sexual orientation. Then the law of the land is changed by Congress or the Supreme Court, and suddenly certain kinds of discrimination are no longer legal. But Christians are under a higher law, the law of the Kingdom of God, the unchangeable law recorded in Scripture. No matter what the law of the land requires or allows, we are accountable to that royal law.
“If you really keep” that law, says James, “you are doing right.” But don’t think that you are keeping that law if you show favoritism and discriminate against the poor or the immigrants or the…. The heart of that royal law is “love your neighbor as yourself.” If you don’t do that, if you treat people differently based on the “cover of the book,” you can’t claim to be a law abiding citizen, a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. You are, in fact, a sinner and a lawbreaker.
James is very powerful here. In what sounds like a hyperbole, James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it.” That’s nonsense, of course, if we’re talking about the law of the land. Someone who breaks the speed limit has not, by virtue of breaking that law, become a breaker of the law against trespassing. The law of the land is often arbitrary and disconnected. The royal law was given by the King and is an expression of the King’s own nature. So lawbreaking is rebellion against who the King is. And rebellion is rebellion, however small or large it may be. So, if you keep all the commandments but break this one, you are still a sinner and a law breaker. James has more to say about this business of law and judgment and mercy, but the lectionary skips over verses 11-13 to move on to James last major argument against income based favoritism.
Such favoritism is, finally, inconsistent with real, living faith in Jesus Christ. Over the years, readers have often noted that verses 14-26 sound like a refutation of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. But it’s not that at all. It is, rather, a refutation of the antinomian doctrine of faith that doesn’t work. James is not arguing against faith; he is arguing against a certain kind of faith. “What good is it, my brothers (note again this pastoral, priestly address in the midst of strong language), if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” That’s at least a tacit acknowledgment that faith saves. The question is, what kind of faith?
James answers that question with another example, an example, not surprisingly, about income inequality in the church. Here it’s not a visitor to a worship service; it’s a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, who is poor. Real faith doesn’t just talk a good line of sympathy and support, wishing God’s blessing upon the poor. The best Christian faith-talk, whether it’s a sermon in the local church or a newspaper announcement by the national assembly, is not enough when it comes to helping the poor. Faith must do something about the physical needs of the poor. Otherwise, “what good is it?”
James ends his sermon on income inequality with the strongest possible terms. If you really have faith in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” you will show it not only by welcoming the poor into the church as equals, but also by giving to the poor so that they can become equals. (See II Corinthians 8:13-15 for Paul’s stunning statement about equality.) Faith that doesn’t act in practical ways to alleviate poverty is dead faith; “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
What a different place this world would be if Christians individually and together acted in a consistent way—consistent with the ministry of Jesus, consistent with their own experience at the hand of God and the hands of the world, consistent with the law of love, and consistent with faith that is truly alive.
I spent the last 22 years of my ministry in a tall steeple downtown church that was surrounded by a large population of homeless folks, folks who fit James’ description of the poor man who visits a worship service. We had a broad ministry to these poor folks and many visited our worship services. Our ushers and members worked hard to welcome them, but it wasn’t always easy. Some were mentally ill, a few were drunk or high, many hadn’t been able to shower before they came to church. We tried to honor them, while still taking account of those issues. And it didn’t always work as well as we would have liked.
I’ll never forget the night a homeless man crept to the front of the sanctuary during the first song and began to mount the pulpit. Afraid for my life, two ushers tried to stop him and get him to take a seat. When he resisted, they had to drag him to the back. This deeply upset the congregation which was very mindful of this text in James. It was preposterous, they said, to think that such a person would harm the minister. The ushers should have done better at dealing with that poor man.
But then, a few months ago, a visitor to a church in the South shot and killed the pastor and a number of others after a wonderful time of Bible study. All of which illustrates how difficult it is to be consistent Christians in a complicated and dangerous world. It will take all the faith and love we have. No, it will take Jesus living in and through us.
A recent issue of The Wall Street Journal showed the cultural relevance of these words of James. It explored the changing ways in which our culture defines objectionable language. A hundred or so years ago, it was religiously inappropriate language that was condemned. Taking God’s name in vain was forbidden. Now every other sentence is prefaced with “Oh my God.” More recently, it was sexually inappropriate language became the taboo du jour. There were certain sexual words you just couldn’t say in public. Now the F-bomb is dropped in polite company and cable TV all the time. Today the worst words are those that express discrimination of any kind. The worst cultural sin is not to be sacrilegious or scatological, but to speak in a derogatory manner about another race or gender or sexual orientation. Intolerance and discrimination are frowned upon more than anything else. Sounds a bit like James, doesn’t it?