As we continue in our study in James, we have looked at our own trials, tests and the troubles God wants to help bring us through. We’ll see today how he tells us we have to help others too. He really wants us to think about how we treat people, and particularly how a person’s social or economic status might affect us.
Before we delve deeper into that I want us to see that however we might make judgements (and we all do) the Bible says it makes no difference to God today whether you’re young or old, highly educated or not, famous or unknown. He wants you to know him and come to know his love, so you can share that with the whole world.
God doesn’t love you more or less according to the colour of your skin, or the clothes on your body. He doesn’t judge like that. He’s not impressed by the car you drive, the fashion you wear, or if you have more degrees than a thermometer.
2 Chronicles 19:7 tells us, “With the LORD our God there is no injustice or partiality.” That word partiality means favouritism, treating people differently in an unfair way. Of course people are different, that’s part of the genius of God’s creativity that nobody’s the same. The Lord deals with us all as individuals, like a good parent loves each child just the same, but doesn’t treat them all the same because you know their differences.
Deuteronomy 10:17 says, “The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality.”
The old KJV translates this as “GOD is no respecter of persons.” Of course that doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect us. He will give us the right and privilege to refuse or choose the love that he offers us. He won’t force it. Some newer versions say, “God doesn’t play favourites.”
The prophet Samuel was told when he went looking for someone God would and could use, “People judge by outward appearance. But God looks at the heart” 1 Sam 16:7. He found the one nobody else would have chosen. David was the youngest and in the eyes of his brother and maybe his own dad the runt of the litter, but God said, “He’s a man after my own heart. He’s going to be the king of Israel.”
As you read through the Bible, have you noticed how time after time God picks people other people would judge as unworthy—even they would rule themselves out! We might look in the mirror and not like what we see. But remember James told us elsewhere that the Word of God is the most trustworthy mirror because in here you see the you that God sees. We judge by what we see. So does God. But only God sees the heart.
What Is Favoritism?
James 2:1: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.”
The root of “favouritism” means to “lift up somebody’s face,” to elevate them. The idea is to judge someone and take them at face value. A superficial evaluation of a person’s worth, based on nothing but what appears on the outside. The surface. James is categorical here to tell us that showing favouritism is absolutely incompatible with being a Christian.
In verse 9 he says if you do that, you break the most important law of God. Wow. Pause for a moment and let that sink in.
Who was James’ half-brother? Jesus. Jewish family. He grew up with this older brother who he would call Yeshua, an ordinary name like our Joshua. And James’ name would be Yacov and there was Jude and other brothers and sister unnamed. An ordinary family, judging by appearances. We don’t know the birth order after this for sure, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus knew he was something special. His mother Mary treasured in her heart what the angel Gabriel told her and Joseph about the special virgin birth, the visitors bringing gifts for a king, the prophecies in the temple when they took him to be dedicated. The escape in the night to Egypt. Then as Jesus grew, Mary and Joseph had various children together.
Who do you think would be favourite? I mean I’m a middle child. Middle children always think they’re the favourite. My older brother might disagree. But this must have been tough for James growing up. With a perfect older brother. Especially when Jesus leaves home to start preaching and healing and miracles—and gets into trouble for it. James thought he’d gone crazy.
But if you want to prove you really are God, dying and then rising again should do it. Now James has come to see, after Jesus died and rose again and appeared to him, that his brother was not just “My brother,” he was, all along, “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
God, come to live with us. The Word became flesh, and moved into the neighbourhood as Eugene Peterson put it.
Now when you get that, whatever growing up was like or whatever the word family means to you, it really helps you not feel inferior or superior to anyone else. You’re just amazingly blessed. Because the most important person in the universe, the King of kings, doesn’t just want to be your friend, but wants to be family with you. Forever.
So now there’s this weird myopic word of so called Christian celebrity, and I know some of them. But I’m usually not freaked out by that when I meet them because they’re just brothers and sisters. Same as me, but different. Same family. All brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the only one to be impressed with.
The most important VIP in the universe has come to meet you, find you, love you, and invite you into his forever family. So James says, “Hey, brothers, sisters, don’t play favourites.”
Now the outworking of that inward realisation is that we shouldn’t go around judging by externals. And the perverse thing is he specifically says this should not happen in our “gatherings.” That’s the word synagogue, he’s writing early on to Jewish believers in Jesus, before the opposition became too fierce and they ended up scattered saints like we are now in these Covid days.
It was reflected even more in the Temple with various courts and signs delineating who was allowed where according to sex and race. But in synagogues, women sat on one side and men on the other—with a curtain dividing them. There are seats of honour, you were graded in importance. People were sorted according to their rank and status in society.
Now imagine, James says, Goldfinger pulls up outside your gathering on the latest model camel. He is blinged up. He is literally “a gold fingered man.” Very few poor people could afford a gold ring in those times. The most ostentatious people in the ancient world would wear rings on their thumbs and every finger except the middle finger. Sometimes up to six rings on a finger! There were ring rental businesses where you could go to if you wanted to make a big impression. His clothes are dazzling too, literally the word here means “shining like a lamp.” LOUD! Flashy.
Now what do you do with him? Welcome him. Love him, tell him that King Jesus became poor for his sake when he came to die for his sins, and now he’s alive to be his best friend. Treat him the very best you can, so that he knows God loves him. The outside doesn’t matter. However successful he looks, however prosperous in this life, he needs the Lord to live in his heart and change him from the inside out.
In the synagogues of the time there’d be few seats or benches to sit on. Most people sat cross legged on the floor. But what if I’m so dazzled by him, getting him the best seat, next to an offering plate perhaps, I don’t even notice a beggar, who only owns one robe. It’s old and filthy, he lives and sleeps in it.
Now there’s nothing wrong with giving the first guy a good seat, literally “an elevated seat.” As long as you do the same to the poor man too. But if I don’t, judging by appearances, making a pre-judgement about him, I’ve become prejudiced. A judge with evil intent. That word evil here can translate as vicious. Judging that the rich are better than the poor.
James says that’s not now. Now we’re all one family.
You know how Ivy church got started. I love the story of how Oliver Brockbank, this wealthy young man went from here to study at Cambridge, when there happened to be a mission organised and a preacher called D. L. Moody preached there to the faculty. Brockbank came back to Manchester and now his heart was broken for the poor. In the upstairs world he had benefitted from all the privileges of, he wanted those of a lower class to meet the Lord. He knew they were not welcome in the local Anglican church where you had to pay Pew Rent.
So he witnessed to his gardener, Mr. Green, and led him to faith in Christ. Together they started a men’s bible study in one of his homes, Ivy Cottage, then in 1893 he built the building which has launched our network of churches. Nobody knows how much it cost, he paid for it all. He paid to take them on holidays away from the grime of the city. He gave them all beautiful Bibles, the best, leather bound. He could have stayed with his “own kind.” Instead he loved and invested himself fully in reaching the poor of the city. James would say he made a wise choice.
How Do We Use Our Money?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: 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 to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
We live in a world where eight men own more than the poorest half of humanity. Our broken economic systems have enabled 2000 billionaires to own more than the 4.6 billion who make up 60% of the world.
James is saying that how we spend our money demonstrates whether or not we bear the family resemblance, and which kingdom matters most to us. That’s not to say to be rich is necessarily bad. The more you have the more good you could choose to do with it. But the Bible says about Jesus that “though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich.” Rich in the ways that matter most and last forever. He spent his time not in the palaces with the influential who had it all, but in places of poverty with those who had nothing.
I read last week that because of the Corona Virus, the world is facing a bigger hunger emergency than ever before in history, which could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year. In Nairobi, Kenya, where I have visited and will never forget the Kibera slum, when flour and cooking oil arrived last week many were injured and others were killed in the crush of people.
Can you imagine that 135 million people around the world were already on the verge of starving and facing acute food shortages, but now with the pandemic, 130 million more could go hungry in 2020?! This was first brought to my attention by my friend Justin Dowds on Wednesday. Justin leads Compassion UK, and that’s why they have launched a special appeal that we are also going to give to financially as a church today.
We are also going to give to the Trussell Trust, who last year gave 1.6 million three day food parcels to people in crisis in the UK through their 1200 food banks. Because there is need all over the world and the question is not, “Should I do that or this” – if we can do both. It’s not either/or. It’s BOTH/AND. One flake of snow is pretty fragile, but when you get lots together it can stop the traffic!
Nowadays everything is harder for the poor. The risk, the fear, the uncertainty, the life-and-death realities are all magnified. Children living in poverty are the most vulnerable in every way with no safety net. If parents can't go out and work due to mandatory isolation, families can't eat.
With the economic picture so uncertain, our first response is either fear or generosity. And here at Ivy, we want to always choose to be generous. We want to help the poor, even more—those whom God has chosen.
Proverbs 28:27 says, “He that gives to the poor shall not lack but he that hides his eyes shall have many a curse.” There’s a promise for the generous. You can give and give and give, and God will replenish. He will give it right back, he’ll put it right back.
David Watson said he knew an old farmer who was always giving money away for God, crazy amounts, yet he never seemed to lack. He asked how it worked and the farmer said, “God keeps filling up my barn, I go in there and throw it out, but he keeps throwing it in. His shovel is bigger than my pitchfork!”
What’s Your Favorite Prejudice?
I wonder, what is your favourite prejudice? Maybe you’re someone with less and you judge people with more and make assumptions about them. Or we may not pick according to that same prejudice, on the basis of money. But what are your preferences?
Nowadays in church we might not prefer someone or hopefully put them on the board because they have gold rings, but what if they have a golden voice? So of course they can sing in the band. We give them more time or a place of prominence because of their evident musical gifts. But what about their character? What if they’re prideful, gossiping, divisive? I’ve found in leadership, character trumps gifts every time. But, and here’s the problem, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the externals. All too often it takes time for character to be revealed or given away.
Malcolm Gladwell in Blink says we judge all the time, we have to, to survive. We “thin slice”– it’s natural; but how do we not become “Judges with evil thoughts?” He describes a test of our “preferences,” and a practical way we can help or stop them from becoming prejudices. One example he gave was from the Harvard Implicit Association Test which measures our unconscious attitudes. The most famous test relates to race. I decided to put myself to the test about 15 years ago when the book came out. It showed I had an unconscious moderate preference for white people over black people, which as a former police officer could have proved dangerous and as a Christian now James says is inexcusable.
Now you’re judging me. But do the test yourself, it’s free online. The way it works is you’re presented with faces popping up on a screen and it tests how quick you are to ascribe positive words like “wonderful,” or negative words like “evil” or “dishonest” to photos of various people that flash up on the screen.
Notice I said this is an unconscious preference. The summary from all the books and films I’d seen, conversations I’d heard, what my family thought as I grew up—I wasn’t necessarily aware. But I have this, bias. So, how do you change that? He says you don’t, you can’t change it by trying, or by telling yourself off for being racist. That doesn’t work.
But if people were shown images of Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela—then they sat in front of the screen and did the test, their results were much more positive. Automatic stereotypes faded away.
The way you change your mind, challenge stereotypes and break prejudices is you meet people who are different, and discover they are people. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s awesome! What would a planet full of Anthony Delaneys look like? I wouldn’t even want to live on it. What would planet you be like to live on? God loves to paint using every colour and shade, it’s never just black or white.
In 1992 I was at St John’s theological college, training for ministry. I was worshipping next to a Ugandan man called Santos when the Holy Spirit nailed me. I suddenly had flashing before my eyes, jokes I had told or phrases I’d not challenged all those years I was a copper here in this multi-ethnic city. I realised, this man who laughed like a child the day he saw snow for the first time when he lived in our country and ran out of the lecture to touch it, this wonderful brother, is a person the like of which I had used those words about. I began to weep. I stayed in the chapel there for hours and missed most of the lectures that day as the Lord taught me the lesson I most needed to learn, not how to parse a Greek verb, but how to love a brother from another mother.
Why was I so convicted about that? Because of what James says here. Discriminating against another person who God made and loves breaks his heart—and breaks his “Royal law.”
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”
I shrug it off and say, “It’s just a little thing.” I can always find a way to justify myself – I’m good at that. But last week, James showed us that God’s law is like a mirror, here he says if you break it in one place, you break it all. I can’t say, “It’s only smashed in one place.” It doesn’t work that way. This is why we need grace. This is why we all need the Lord.
Even though every one of us has at times made our snap decisions, our faulty assumptions, because of our favourite prejudice – that even now we might think, It’s okay, it’s just a joke, it’s just the way I was brought up.
If God was taking that test, here’s what would happen. No matter what face appears on a screen, the word that God always automatically pushes to assign to that face no matter what race or gender is LOVE.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!
And that includes you and me—thank God! No matter how many times and in so many ways I have been wrong and done wrong, he says “I love you. I forgive you. I love you. I want you in my family.”
Anthony Delaney is a Leader at Ivy Church in Manchester. He is also the leader for New Thing and the LAUNCH conference. He is an author and hosts the television show “Transforming Life.”