September 03, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
The RCL throws another curve ball this week. Last week it was cutting out part of the text; this week it’s piling one story on another. So, the choice is to either preach both, or skip one of them to concentrate on the other. Preaching both might not be the best choice, since each story has its own unique message.
One thing that unites them, however, is that both take place deep in Gentile territory. Tyre is way up in the north, and the woman is clearly identified as a Gentile. The Decapolis is closer to Jesus’ home territory of Galilee, but it is largely populated by Gentiles. In this way, Mark follows up the controversy over washing hands and its emphasis on Jewish distinctiveness with a foray by Jesus into the heart of Gentile territory.
I will be concentrating on the first healing story, Jesus’s healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman. This is certainly the one of the two that that demands attention because of the strangeness of Jesus’s words and reactions. I will then follow with a few comments on the second story of the deaf mute.
Right from the start there’s something strange about Jesus here. With no real explanation, Mark writes that Jesus “entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know it.” (vs 24) Is it because he’s in Gentile territory and he doesn’t want to mingle with them? Is it because he’s tired and needs a break? In either case, this doesn’t fit our usual picture of Jesus as an exemplar of love and availability. As is often the case in Mark, he paints a much more human picture of Jesus.
But the news of Jesus’ presence cannot go unnoticed. How does this woman know about Jesus? Mark explains none of this. This woman’s daughter is trapped in the heart of darkness, possessed by a demon, and the mother is desperate to find a way out. She fell at Jesus feet. Strangely, that’s all the text says. In this account she never actually says what she needs from Jesus. Perhaps her request is assumed in her falling at Jesus’ feet.
But Jesus is quick to reply, and it certainly sounds like an insult. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs [Gentiles].” We need to fill in that she us a Gentile, which Mark evidently assumes because he has already made clear that Jesus is among the Gentiles. (vs. 27) (It seems somewhat odd that Mark, who is often quick to explain Jewish words and practices, fails to interpret Jesus words about feeding the children’s bread to the dogs.)
Commentators and preachers find lots of ways to soften the blow of Jesus’s apparent rudeness and rejection. Clearly Jesus is saying (as the parallel passage in Matthew makes clear) that it’s not time yet for the Gentiles. Some suggest that Jesus may have been smiling, to entice her response. Others make the valid point that the Greek word may actually mean a little or a household dog. In that case, at least the Gentiles are at least part of the same household.
But there is really no way to soft-peddle the harshness of Jesus’s reply. “First the children, then the dogs like you.” It’s not nice. It seems a heartless and cruel way to get rid of this hurting mother. Matthew’s parallel account (15: 21-28) at least makes it much more clear that for Jesus it’s a matter of timing. The Gentiles will get their gospel opportunity later; Israel comes first. Still, surely there are other ways of saying that.
I tend to think that it is typical of Mark to present a much more human, more vulnerable picture of Jesus, and this text fits. Clearly, Jesus wants to get away and be alone for a while, and this woman is a disturbance. And there’s no reason to think that Jesus wasn’t convinced that the time of the Gentiles had not yet arrived. So he sends her away with a verbal swat. Ever felt that way, Pastor?
I think that our theological commitment to the divinity of Christ may push us too far away from the reality of his humanity. Did Jesus get tired, disgruntled, irritated, or angry? Well it’s clear from the gospels he did; he was not unfailingly nice. He was human.
Let’s face it, it’s the woman who is the star of this story, not Jesus. She smartly retorts, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus pictures the gentiles as housedogs in the same house as Jews, and the woman takes it from there.” Well, the dogs can eat at the same time under the table, can’t they?” Is anyone so touch and courageous as a mother whose child is threatened?
And Jesus immediately recognizes her truth and backs off from his pronouncement. Unlike Matthew’s somewhat cleaned up version of the story, Jesus doesn’t say anything about the woman’s faith. He remarks at her words (Greek: logon). Jesus points to the logic, the convincing cleverness, the sheer chutzpah of her response.
But that is also faith. Her believing in Jesus meant that she would not take no for an answer because she knew, deep down, that he could not turn her away. She believed that the covenant God of Israel at least had room for the dogs under the table. In its rawest and most basic form, faith is the stubbornness that will not accept a “no” from God. And Jesus found it irresistible. Now I perhaps see a wry smile on his face. “You won. Go home and you will find your daughter’s been healed.” And she did.
The story of the healing of the deaf-mute that follows, which is also part of our lection, has some interesting ties to the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Both likely have to do with Gentiles (taking place in Decapolis), and in both cases Jesus acts in ways we may find strange.
What strikes me in this episode is the deeply human and intimate way Jesus dealt with this deaf-mute. Think about how a deaf-mute might respond to this situation with a stranger–fearful, uncomprehending. Jesus leads him away from the crowds to gain his full attention. And instead of words, he uses actions to signal his intent– fingers in the ear and spittle on the tongue. The spit might be a stretch, except that spit was thought to have some healing qualities.
And then the deep sigh, the single Aramaic word that sounds like a sigh, “Ephphatha!” (“Be Opened” is the motto of Gallaudet University, the national school for the deaf.) It’s interesting that Mark should keep this word, so strange to his Gentile audience. Perhaps he is intent on capturing exactly that deeply human element in the story for his readers and for us.
Jesus’s “Don’t tell anyone” is almost a joke. You heal a deaf mute, of all people, and instruct him not to tell anyone. If it were a leper, that might work, but how are you going to keep a healed deaf-mute from talking about it?
Finally, Mark wants us to notice the crowds and hear their response. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” (vs. 37) I take it that they are impressed not only by Jesus’s healing action, but by his manner, by the way he treated the man.
Preaching the Text
1). My suggestion would be to choose one of the episodes here for both reading and preaching. Taking on both would, in my opinion, only confuse the congregation. There is certainly enough in either one to launch a sermon. Perhaps you have preached on the parallel in Matthew recently, which makes this a good time to explore the second episode here.
2). A good rule of thumb in dealing with a narrative text is to stick to the story. No matter how familiar it might be to you or even the congregation, the narrative has power to take us places that other forms of communication do not. There’s a natural progression that carries people along. As I have pointed out, there are theological issues to be dealt with here, such as the character of Jesus’ humanity or the nature of faith, but let the narrative lead you there. I think that the best methodology for preaching a narrative text is to re-tell the story as imaginatively as you can, and then pausing to raise questions or deal with theological issues as you go along.
3). One of the remarkable aspects of this story is the fearless persistence of the woman. She will not take no for an answer. In that way she is a model of faith for us all. Faith is sometimes just hanging in there, trusting in God’s grace and goodness even when it seems far away or impossible. This kind of persistence is evident throughout the Bible, from Moses’ hard bargaining with God over Sodom (Genesis 18) to his refusal to allow God to abandon or destroy Israel after they built the golden calf in the wilderness (Exodus 32). Like the woman who stood up to Jesus’s refusal, faith means we sometimes stand up to God with the kind of no-holds-barred feistiness we see in the Psalms.
4). I think this text also provides an opportunity for some teaching on the humanity and divinity of Christ. I find that many Christians are deeply confused about the two natures of Christ. Jesus’s actions in this story are so different from what we might expect. One way to approach it is to invite people to imagine how, with their own image of Jesus, how he might have responded differently to the woman. Out of that you can ask whether in their picture of Jesus he can be irritable, or tired, or need a response like this woman’s to set him straight. If Jesus is really human, if he is truly embodied as we are, perhaps we need to rethink what his humanity looks like.
One of the ways we describe his humanity is that he is without sin. What does that mean exactly? Does it mean that Jesus was never tired or irritated or angry but always nice to others? A quick reading of the gospels will dispel that notion. I wonder if we should look at Jesus’s sinlessness not so much as a kind of nit-picking legalism, or an unperturbable niceness, but as the struggle of a real human being to do God’s will.
Luke tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature.” (2: 52) The word translated “grew” implies a struggle, a battle. It didn’t come naturally. In Hebrews, it says Christ “learned obedience” through what he suffered with “loud cries and tears.” (5:7) Jesus’s sinlessness was not that of a divine being stepping lightly through the sludge of human sin and temptation. It was a real struggle to be the one true human being who is obedient to God.
5). Like snappy titles? I came across this title for a sermon on this text from Heidi Husted: “The Gospel Goes to the Dogs.”
CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Author: Stan Mast
Proverbs 22 is full of famous proverbs on subjects as varied as child-rearing, sexual relations with prostitutes, laziness, the value of wisdom and knowledge, choosing friends and companions, sucking up to the rich and the powerful, abusing alcohol, and money. It is perhaps the best-known chapter in this book.
At first, it seemed a little strange to me that the lectionary reading for today focuses only on the proverbs about money and poverty. It felt like the compilers of the Lectionary were engaging in a bit of biblical cherry picking, selecting texts that say what you want to say, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself. But then I remembered last week’s reading. Chapter 2 of Solomon’s Song of Songs urged us to become more intimate with Jesus. (At least that’s how I finally applied the text.) Now, this week’s reading focuses on our duty to the poor. Pietist preachers were happy last week; social justice prophets are licking their chops this week.
So, although I occasionally complain about the choices made by the Lectionary, this week I say, “Thank God for the Lectionary.” If you follow it regularly, it gives you a chance to preach on a wide variety of texts and themes. Our reading this week gives you the opportunity to preach on a dicey subject without fear of being labelled a social justice left winger who doesn’t care about a personal walk with Jesus. You just preached on the latter, and now the Lectionary takes you to social justice. You aren’t riding a favorite hobby horse. You are simply preaching the text of the day, selected years and years ago by wise folks who wanted to feed God’s people a balanced diet of Scripture. Here is the chef’s choice for today.
And, my oh my, is this reading ever relevant. In this age of growing income inequality, here are texts that deals forthrightly with how the rich must treat the poor. In these few words of Proverbs 22, we have a comprehensive biblical guide to social justice for the poor. Interestingly, it was written not by a firebrand activist fresh from the latest street protest, but by a man so wealthy that he would be comfortable with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. (I’m referring here to the traditional understanding that most of the Proverbs were written by King Solomon, whose wealth was legendary in the ancient world.) When Warren Buffet speaks, even the wealthiest listen. It should be the same way with King Solomon and these words from Proverbs 22.
Verse 1 deals with our priorities. Our decisions and actions are driven by our priorities. What do you want most out of life? The wise king says there are basically only two choices. What should we value most—a good name or great riches? To paraphrase Jesus’ famous saying, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his standing in the community?” If you die a rich man whom everyone hates, if you die friendless and alone because you prioritized great riches, what good is that? Would you rather be known as a rich man or a good man, a sharp businesswoman or a wonderful humanitarian? Which is a better foundation for a good and happy and successful life—great riches or a good name? Our treatment of the poor will flow naturally from that fundamental choice of priorities.
In verse 2, the subject is our attitude toward or perspective on the poor. Do you look down on the poor? Are the poor “those people?” Do you see a poor person and say to yourself, “I have nothing in common with that person?” Verse 2 says that a wise attitude toward the poor begins with the theological truth that “Yahweh is the maker of them (both rich and poor) all.” That’s what rich and poor “have in common.” Every single one of us has been made in God’s image and, thus, has been endowed with dignity and certain “inalienable rights.” Looking down on the poor is like looking down on God. In fact, that is exactly what Proverbs 14:31 says. “He who shows contempt for the poor shows contempt for their Maker.”
Our priorities in life and our attitude toward the poor will determine how we treat the poor. Verses 8 and 9 contrast two very different ways of dealing with the poor. Verse 8 is about “sowing wickedness,” which doesn’t make much sense in this context until we see that “wickedness” is literally “injustice.” The Hebrew uses two major words for justice—tzadeqah, which is primary justice, giving people fair and equal treatment regardless of social, racial or economic status, and mishpat, which is rectifying justice, putting things right for those who did not receive tzadeqah in the first place and were exploited. (Thanks to Timothy Keller for these clear and concise definitions.)
The person who denies people tzadeqah, who takes advantage of the poor by paying low wages or loaning them money at exorbitant interest rates or confines them to poor housing by redlining certain neighborhoods—the person who does that will “reap trouble.” Indeed, mistreatment or neglect of the poor is called not just a lack of charity, but “sowing injustice.” And that way of treating the poor will rebound on the exploiters, as violence is unleashed in society: “the rod of his fury will be destroyed.” (See Illustration Ideas for an example of this rebound effect of injustice.)
Our wise king will deal with the lack of mishpat in society in the last verses of our reading. But first he present the exact opposite of verse 8, the contrasting way of treating the poor found in verse 9. Rather than sowing injustice, the wise among the wealthy “shares his food with the poor.” Notice, he doesn’t just make a little donation in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas time. And he doesn’t make huge donations to charitable organizations. Rather, he shares his own food with the poor.
There is something intimate and compassionate about those words. Real generosity actually sees the poor and hears their voice and gets involved on a personal level. The person who uses her money in that way “will herself be blessed.” This is not some tit for tat prosperity gospel: “give so that you can be blessed.” No, this is a simple acknowledgement that compassionate generosity will rebound on the giver, even as unjust mistreat of the poor will rebound on the exploiter. That’s the way it is in a world ruled by a just God.
But a wise person doesn’t just give generously to the poor; she also works to change the system that contributes to poverty. Verse 22 focuses on the courts, the legal system with its laws and penalties. The system itself can be unjust. This is a subject that makes many conservative Christians uncomfortable, so it is important to see how strongly God feels about this aspect of how we treat the poor. “Do not crush the needy in court, for Yahweh will take up their case and plunder those who plunder them.” For those who need a public defender and can’t get a good one, so that they are crushed in court, God will function as their defender. God is “a Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows (Ps. 68:5).”
If God cares so much about mishpat, about redressing the wrongs perpetrated upon the poor and marginalized, God‘s people should share God’s passion not only for generous giving, but also for creating a just society in which the needs and rights of the poor get the same attention at the needs and rights of the rich. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8 and 9)
If you dare to preach on this text, you will need to counter the all-too-common notion that all this talk about taking care of the poor is a “social gospel” that distracts the church from its primary task of “winning souls.” This “social justice stuff” is part of a secular agenda foisted on the church by the do-gooders on the left side of the political spectrum. While it is true that the church must never trade in the Great Commission for “the Great Society,” it is very important to note that our text begins and ends with powerful references to God. Our care for the poor is anchored in the fact that they are God’s children as much as Warren and Bill are. Further, this wise and wealthy king warns us that if we don’t take care of the poor both individually and systemically, God will intervene in a powerful way. I don’t think it is a stretch to read verse 23 as a veiled reference to the Last Judgment. Think of Jesus warning in Matthew 25!
A final word seals the sermon. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Here’s the simple question for your congregation. Are we righteous or wicked, wise or foolish? One measure of our righteous wisdom is how we treat the poor.
One example of the way the poor are crushed in court is painfully revealed in Bryan Stevenson’s brilliant book, Just Mercy. It is a kind of non-fictional re-telling of To Kill a Mockingbird. A Christian attorney, Stevenson tells story after story about poor (often black) people who don’t get a fair trial. He has founded the Equal Justice Initiative which aims to defend unjustly convicted people on Death Row. Walter McMillian, for example, was wrongly convicted because of the overt racism of the prosecution’s team and because of the egregious incompetence of his defense. But it still took years to get Walter retried and released.
I am re-reading Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities this summer. He made a powerful case for the rebound effect of injustice. The shocking mistreatment of the poor by the rich in pre-revolutionary France led directly to the violent slaughter of the rich by the poor in the French Revolution. The one city of the title, Paris, ran red with the blood of the rich, while the other city, London, was spared a violent revolution because of the creation of a more democratic form of government, which took absolute power out of the hands of the monarchy. Because there was a bit more justice, there was a lot less fury.
In noting how our text anchors concern for the poor in God himself, I was alluding to the foundation of wisdom in Proverbs: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” My neighbor was talking about her grandson the other day. She said, “He’s lazy, slovenly, unemployed. He’s lost. He has no faith, no sense of who he is, no idea of what to do with his life. He’s just lost.” That describes many in our society. Not fearing the Lord, they don’t know how to live. Those who do fear the Lord, on the other hand, must be leaders in treating the lost, the poor, and marginalized with what Stevenson calls “Just Mercy.”
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
Psalm 125 is one of that small collection in the book of Psalms called “Songs of Ascent” (120-134). Most scholars agree that this is most likely a group of songs or chants used by pilgrims going up (ascent} to Jerusalem for one of the three great pilgrimage feasts– Jerusalem, Mount Zion, and the blessing of Israel. One can imagine the pilgrims as they come into sight of the city singing:
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people
both now and forevermore.
The metaphorical image of mountains and hills is very common in the Psalms generally. Psalm 120, another of the Songs of Ascent is probably the best known:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
Mountains suggest agelessness and protection, as though the mountains and hills surrounding Jerusalem are like arms wrapped around God’s people.
The whole Bible is replete with this way of using physical objects to describe the relationship of God and his people. In the ancient and medieval world, the physical universe God created had a kind of sacramental power, that is, they are like windows that open up to to the reality of God. In the modern and post-modern world, we tend not to do that kind of sacramental thinking. The world of material objects is separate from what we call spiritual reality. The physical world us the place of reality, while the “spiritual world” is a realm of shadowy unreality.
This Psalm, and, in fact, the whole Bible and Christian tradition does not allow for this split. Created matter, the material universe is as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” The mountains around Jerusalem are not just known by their geological elements, they are seen as arms of protection around Jerusalem. The geological aspect isn’t real and the other unreal. Both are real in the classic sacramental view of reality because God is the creator and anything and everything that God created has the capacity to reveal God’s truth. (I am using the word sacramental rather than sacrament to make a distinction between physical things that God specifically designates as sacraments, bread, wine, and water, and the capacity of all physical reality to open our eyes to the Creator.)
We do not know when this Psalm was composed, but verse 3 suggests a time of tyrannical rule, perhaps by an occupying power.
3 The scepter of the wicked will not remain
over the land allotted to the righteous,
for then the righteous might use
their hands to do evil.
The text suggests that the problems with evil, tyranny, and injustice, are not only that it they are wrong in themselves, but that it has dire consequences in the whole society. When tyranny triumphs it has the double effect of tempting the righteous to act accordingly. It dilutes the moral and spiritual strength of everyone, even the righteous.
In the U.S. we live in a moment in which corruption and dishonesty seem pervasive and they threaten the very foundation of our society and its institutions. We would do well to listen to the Psalm’s warning and prayer. Corruption breeds corruption, dishonesty debases the truth for all of us, anger sparks anger in return. We Christians need to be careful not to become what we are against. Our prayer can echo the psalm, “Lord, let not wickedness, tyranny, and lies continue, lest we be drawn into the same sins in our opposition to them.”
The Psalm’s call for God to “do good to those who are good,” and, at the same time to “banish the evildoers” signals an aspect of the Psalms in general with which we are not always comfortable. It calls on God to reward the righteous” among whom we like to count ourselves, while thwarting and even destroying the wicked. How does this square with Jesus call to pray for our enemies?
The perennial test of faith happens when we see the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. When evil triumphs and goodness is on the run. That doesn’t make sense to us. If God is ruling from heaven, how can God allow such a travesty to happen. It’s a conundrum addressed throughout the Psalms.
Here the Psalmist invites the community to pray that God not allow that to happen. Let righteousness abound, let goodness pay off, while wickedness is thwarted at every step. Notice that here, as elsewhere in the Psalms, there’s a boldness in the way they address God. While we tend to hang back and give God the benefit of the doubt (“God knows best, after all), the Psalms are replete with complaints and demands for God to do what is right.
Immediately after that prayer for God to act with justice and truth, the psalm abruptly closes with a benediction. “Peace be upon Israel.” The only answer to the constant challenge of injustice and evil in the world is trust. “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion.” There’s a rock-like stability to their lives because, despite appearances to the contrary, they are surrounded by the arms of God, as Jerusalem us surrounded by solid strong mountains.
Preaching the Text
1). I have made rather explicit reference to the current political crisis in the U.S., a move that might seem dangerous to some preachers as being too political. Yet, what good is our preaching the Word of God if it has nothing to say to our current situation in life. The warning of the Psalm is that in times when injustice and wrong the cause of right can be corrupted, and we can easily take on the evil tactics of the evils we abhor. To use Thomas Paine’s memorable line, “these are times that try men’s souls.” Living in times of moral and political corruption should make us all the more careful to guard our souls and strengthen our spiritual disciplines. This is not a call for Christians to withdraw from the moral battlefield, but to be very careful about how we engage in the battle, lest the righteous “use their hands to do evil.”
2). In 1944, just months before he was hanged by the Nazis for being an enemy of of the Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn which could be a meditation on Psalm 125.
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.
And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through,
And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.
(translated by Fred Pratt Green, 1972)
About this hymn, Carol Bechtel writes, “That such a confession of faith could emanate from a prison cell is at once inspiring and astonishing. Yet, close examination reveals that it is not just a confession of faith but also a prayer for faith’s preservation.
3). Using this benediction may be a powerful way to tie the themes of the Psalm into the closing of the service
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
So the Lord surrounds his people
From this time and forevermore.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be with you now and forever.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Author: Doug Bratt
In God’s Politics Jim Wallis describes an experiment a seminarian once conducted. He cut every text about the poor out of an old Bible. It took him, Wallis reports, “a very long time.”
“When,” concludes Wallis, “the zealous seminarian was done with all his editorial cuts, that old Bible would hardly hold together, it was so sliced up. It was literally falling apart. What we had done was create a Bible full of holes.” It’s an evocative word picture of a holy Bible without reference to the poor as a book that’s so “holey” that it can hardly hold together.
Yet even the most faithful Christians have always found it tempting to gut our Bibles in ways similar to the seminarian. By naturally overlooking God’s stated concern for the poor, we essentially cut out the Bible’s calls to care for people who are needy. By ignoring what one theologian calls God’s “special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life,” we basically shrink God’s Word.
However, while God has a special concern for people who are poor, James 2 suggests that the Christians to whom it’s written, have the opposite preference. After all, it seems that one day when their worship service was just getting started, two people walked in. One of them clearly had much money that he had spent on his clothing and haircut. He may even have smelled a bit like money. The other person was obviously poor, with little money to spend on his clothing, haircut or hygiene products. He probably smelled more like moldy cheese than money.
Since it wasn’t a very big church, everyone could see what happened. Everyone watched the head usher make a big deal of the rich man. He enthusiastically greeted him, gave him a bulletin and showed him a good seat that he may even have held for him as he sat down. Perhaps the usher even elbowed a few people out of the way to make a place for the rich man.
However, the same usher indicated that there was no place in his church for the poor man to sit. He might have told him there weren’t any bulletins left. He certainly told him that all the seats were so full that he’d have to stand somewhere in the back near the door. We can almost see the head usher tripping all over himself to shove the poor guy out of view and onto the “back of the bus.”
We can almost picture the church: all the people with PhDs and money spread out across the front of the church, where everyone can see them. However, their employees and students are packed like sardines way in the back, dark corners of church.
Since everybody saw what was happening, James also noticed what was going on. So he may have gone right home, taken out his pen and scratched out a letter of protest to the church’s members, including its leaders. “My brothers in our glorious Lord Jesus,” he grieved, “don’t show favoritism. When you welcome the rich and shun the poor, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
She was a beloved missionary who worked tirelessly throughout her life with Appalachia’s poorest citizens, especially its many orphans. We always eagerly looked forward to her home visits on which she’d tell us memorable stories about God’s work among Appalachia’s poorest people.
The church in which I grew up didn’t have many people who were materially poor. God did, however, draw one family that was relatively poor into our fellowship. Our church tried to welcome that family with open arms. Yet with one phrase, our missionary effectively shunned them. She unapologetically used a racial slur to name one of the “hollers” where she worked. While I was probably in middle school at the time, I’ve never forgotten hearing that. I don’t think we ever saw that needy family in church again.
Many of the churches in which those who preach and teach James 2 try to make a difference in the lives of people who are needy. The church I serve, for example, runs a monthly food pantry, mentors students who are at-risk, as well as conducts a Bible study in a low-income senior citizen apartment complex.
Yet our church also struggles to know how to fully enfold people who are materially poor into the daily life of our church. Not many people who are impoverished even walk through our doors to join us for worship. So we don’t get much practice at welcoming the poor into our building.
That’s why I wonder what would happen if what occurred in one of our prominent neighboring churches took place in our church. One morning a man walked into its lovely sanctuary and down its center aisle to a seat right behind the pulpit as the pastor preached. Those who saw him recognized that the man struggled emotionally and socio-economically.
That recognition seemed to paralyze all of the worshipers – except for my friend whom I’ll call Joe. He quickly but quietly climbed to where the man had taken his seat and sat down right next to him. While many of Joe’s friends hoped if not expected him to talk their visitor down from his lofty perch, Joe didn’t. He simply comfortably took his place right next to him for the rest of the service.
Yet if someone’s going to walk down our churches’ center aisles, don’t we have to admit that we’d prefer to have people who are mentally and economically healthy do so? After all, they’re not likely to disrupt our worship services. What’s more, people who are socio-economically middle and upper class can help pay the church’s bills. So we prefer to surround ourselves with the kinds of people who look, sound, give and even smell quite a bit like us. In fact, I sense that many North American churches are becoming not just more racially and politically but also socio-economically monolithic.
When God, through James, calls us not to discriminate against the poor, God graciously disrupts our natural ways of treating society’s citizens who are most vulnerable. When God calls us to welcome the poor as warmly as God welcomes us, God invites us into the joy of imitating God.
However, the protection that God uses James to extend to people who are poor goes even deeper than just calling God’s children to welcome them into the church. Some of James’ contemporaries apparently believed that faith is more a matter of what we believe than of what we do. In fact, he suggests that some of his fellow Christians were contradicting what they said they believed by what they actually did.
In an old Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and Linus trudge through the snow bundled in fur hats, scarves, gloves and boots. As they battle the elements, they meet Snoopy. He’s standing forlornly in front of his doghouse, looking just plain miserable.
However, Charlie Brown does nothing for a shivering Snoopy but tell him, “Be of good cheer.” Linus adds, “Yes, Snoopy, be of good cheer.” Then they continue on their merry way, leaving Snoopy with what someone has called “a wonderful quizzical look on his face.”
God won’t just let James’ readers walk past people who are poor, leaving them only our flowery words. God reminds James’ readers that true religion is not just a matter of what we believe or even the rituals we practice. It’s certainly not just a matter of the nice words we sometimes say to people who are needy. God insists that true religion is also about how we treat each other, especially those whom society so easily marginalizes.
In fact, God goes so far as to say through James that faith without Christlike activity is, in fact, dead. Religious practice on Sunday without faithful living the other six days of the week is basically worthless. Instead of faithfully receiving God’s grace that grants eternal life, it only perpetuates spiritual death.
Thankfully, then, the faith that God graciously gives God’s adopted sons and daughters is a living faith. It’s a faith that doesn’t just say and know all the right things about God, God’s world and God’s creatures. James insists that the faith that God graciously gives us is a faith that, among other things, actively cares for the poor.
Yet you may know that such talk made people like Martin Luther very nervous. Once he rediscovered the grace of justification by faith Luther didn’t appreciate its repeated calls to do good works. However, one theologian wonders whether he had other reasons that some of us share for criticizing James. The great Reformer could be, after all, very critical of peasants and other people who were poor.
James implicitly asks how the ways the church treats people differs from the way society often treats people. Do Christians view the poor the way Jesus viewed them? Or do our congregations just duplicate our culture’s standards of prestige and success? Do we by what we do, in other words, effectively render a holy Bible “holey”?
Mary Glover lived in Jim Wallis’ neighborhood and helped distribute food in his ministry’s weekly food line. She was so poor that she too needed a bag of groceries each week. Yet Mary was also a kind of leader of the food ministry; she often said its prayer before it opened its doors on Saturday mornings. She was, after all, the ministry’s best pray-er. She was one of those people, writes Wallis, “who pray like they know to whom they’re talking.”
Mary would generally begin by praying something like, “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and that our bed was not our cooling board. Thank you, Lord!”
However, Mary also prayed in a way that showed that God had showed her what was at stake in our treatment of people who are materially poor. After all, Mary always prayed: “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”