“A Most Beautiful Song”
In his book, Populist Saints, Howard Snyder recounts a story of Benjamin Titus Roberts riding a train in the early 1870’s. Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, was a frequent traveler and often the train conductors would allow him to ride in the first-class section of the train. On one such occasion ten well-dressed, young African American men and women entered the first-class section of the train. As slavery had started to be undone only a few years earlier, the presence of these young people in the first-class section was a bit conspicuous. Another passenger in the car stood up and strongly objected to the presence of these young people, suggesting that because of the color of their skin they be moved to a lower class of car on the train. The conductor defended the young people, noting that all of them had first-class tickets. The other passenger grew more outraged and began berating them, refusing to ride in the same car as them, all the while using, “vehemently racist language.” At this point B.T. Roberts stood and intervened. Though no one knows exactly what he said as he rebuked the belligerent man, his words must have been convincing because the angry passenger sat down, and the young African American men and women remained in the first-class section of the train for the remainder of their trip.
Seating arrangements seemed to be on the mind of James the brother of Jesus as well in our second reading this week. James is concerned that those early Christians who were fleeing violence and persecution following the martyrdom of Stephen did not forget themselves. Dispersion and struggle do not free the followers of Jesus from the obligation to practice “pure religion.” Poverty does not negate generosity. Trial and temptation do not make anger, harsh words, sin or sordidness permissible. As chapter two opens we find that where we would have people sit and how we address them speaks volumes about the state of our hearts.
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Our English descriptions of the idea of favoritism often come across as a bit benign. How does simply showing “partiality” or “respect for persons” call into question whether we truly believe in Jesus? Favoritism is far more sinister and threatening than our simple personal preferences. The word rendered favoritism is a compound word combining the words prosopon and lambano. Prosopon refers to the face or outward appearance of something. Lambano means to take hold of, or to seize. Favoritism, then, means to seize upon the face of something. Acts of favoritism are those where we take ahold of only the surface appearance of someone. Romans 2:11 reminds us that God does not take hold of appearances in his judgments. God is not seized by the face of things as he extends his love to all of humanity. For followers of Jesus to cling to appearances, being seized only by the surface of things demonstrates that they are not imitating God’s way of doing things.
James offers an example of what unchecked favoritism could look like. If these believers are taken by the appearance of a person wearing gold rings and fine clothes so completely that they give that person deference and the best seat, then they have missed the mark. If these believers seize upon the face of a poor person wearing filthy clothes, calling them to stand or submit to a lower place, then they might have, “become judges with evil thoughts.”
Two things are noteworthy here. First, James seems to confront the sensibilities of a presumed middle class. The finery of the wealthy and rags of the poor seem to be judged against a common, unspoken middle class who have not fallen into filthy rags or risen to the level of wearing golden rings. Beyond the issue of the class of the audience, there is a question that arises here around the setting in which these acts of favoritism occur. The rich person and the poor person enter into the assembly or synagogue. Some contend that this is a worship setting. Other commentators believe this to be a kind of court where legal matters are adjudicated. The social class of the believer does not make judgments based on favoritism acceptable. Whether in worship, or in the courts, judging a person, and acting only upon the surface appearances that seize us, is sin.
Seeking to restore the equilibrium undone by favoritism, James offers a series of rhetorical questions. Jesus, who in Matthew 25 identified himself with the least has indeed, “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.” The heart of the problem is that in showing partiality, followers of Jesus had “dishonored the poor.” James reminds these dispersed people that it was likely wealthy officials and landowners who had oppressed and arrested them. It was likely the aristocratic religious officials who were the most vocal and violent opponents of Jesus. The dishonor heaped on the poor was not warranted. The excess of honor offered to the wealthy was not warranted. These descriptions are meant to correct imbalances in the ways followers of Jesus were offering honor based upon outward appearances. James is not seeking to create a new imbalance where all wealthy people are demonized and all of those who are poor somehow innocent. To draw this conclusion would be to miss the point of the passage entirely. John Wesley offers a helpful interpretive dictum here, “honour none merely for being rich; despise none merely for being poor.”
Once an equilibrium of honor is re-established between rich and poor, James prescribes for his hearers two methods by which such surface gazing and imbalance can be avoided. The first of these is the “royal law” of love. “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To play favorites is to sin and break this royal law. Beyond being a people who love their neighbor, James calls his people to be a people of mercy. A failure to show mercy means judgment without mercy. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Living into the love of neighbors and tempering judgments with mercy is indeed a liberating law.
A faith marked by words of love for our neighbors is not enough. A faith that extends merciful judgments from a distance is not sufficient. The poor are dishonored when all that the follower of Jesus offers them are commands and prescriptions for self-improvement. “Stand there.” “Sit at my feet.” “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.” Putting the poor in their place and sending them away with grace but no goods betrays an anemic and dying faith in the hearts of those who follow Jesus.
The poor are more than what they lack. The rich are more than what they have. Those who would imitate Jesus must not be seized by the face of things. We must confront our passive drift towards partiality. We must stand up from our comfortable middle-class seats, whether in the courts or in the church, and see to it that we are rightly and actively loving our neighbors as ourselves. We must attend to our judgements and make sure they look to the heart of things and are seasoned with mercy and liberty. We must confront partiality with more than our best thoughts and our good words. We must discover how to welcome the wealthy without catering to them or deifying them because of what they can buy us. We must rise from our seats and welcome the poor, choosing to sit with them rather than sending them away. For our faith in Jesus to be real we must keep the naked warm with clothes that we provide. To make sure our faith is truly alive we must feed the hungry with food from our own tables.
When the train that B.T. Roberts was riding reached its destination, the African American men and women who Roberts had stood to defend gathered around him. According to accounts they began singing to Roberts, “a most beautiful song.” It turns out that these young African American men and women were the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. This singing group, “won international acclaim, introducing white audiences to Negro spirituals like “Steal Away” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” What beautiful songs go unsung and unheard when we seize upon only the surface of things? What deep gifts and abundant graces are missed when we fail to embrace everyone, rich or poor, black or white, male or female as those created in the image God? May God forgive and overcome in us through the loving example of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, the unbelief that our partiality betrays. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us, for we are sinners all.
 John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, James 2, https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=wes&b=59&c=2
 Howard A. Snyder. Populist Saints. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006. Pg. 11.
 Ibid. 11.