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James 2:1-17

“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.”[1] 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 poo