On FavoritismMay 13, 2012, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (James 2:1-7) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service
Sermon on James 2:1-7
In the Gospel of John, you do not find the familiar Christmas stories of Mary and baby Jesus. Instead, John introduced Jesus as the “the light that shines in the darkness.” John 1: 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. I really like this metaphor, because this is precisely the level of impact that Jesus has upon our lives. It is light upon darkness. This light is the source of life. This light is also the giver of life. Our lives are changed and renewed when we experience this light. Excuse the pun, but we should all be enlightened by Jesus. It is for this purpose that Jesus came to us. John 1: 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
This is perhaps why John describes us Christians, brothers and sisters, as believers in our “glorious” Lord Jesus Christ. I think this word “glorious” is the key to the entire passage. John tells us that we have seen Jesus' glory. James calls us believers of this glory. Yet if I may ask, what is this glory? What makes our Lord Jesus Christ glorious? What is the glory that is revealed to us? John makes it clear in John 17: “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed:
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 4 I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.”
When the hour had come, for Jesus to be glorified, the events that followed contradicted all normal expectations of glory. Jesus was arrested. His disciples betrayed and denied him. He was mocked and beaten. He died on the Cross. Yet, his final words on the Cross were “it is finished”. It is a reminder of his prayer in 17:4 “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” Jesus had power and authority. Jesus had fame and popularity. But his glory lies in his submission to God’s will. His glory comes from his love and sacrifice for his people. My brothers and sisters, as believers in our “glorious” Lord Jesus Christ, is this the glory in which you truly believe? The glory of humility and self-denial? If this is the glory you seek, then this should be the glory you manifest in your life. The glory of Jesus is not just for Jesus alone. In his prayer, Jesus reveals “22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” This glory is given to all who believe in Jesus through the message of the Apostles. For Jesus, this glory entails his work on the Cross. For us, this glory makes us one. It brings us to complete unity. This glory binds in love with one another. This glory binds us to the love of God.
But in the time of James, the world was not like this. The Roman society was deeply divided by class, and your class was determined by your wealth.  The rich were honoured and the poor were disdained. This was really inevitable because with wealth, you could obtain power and influence. The Romans had a political or legal career path for the rich which often led to further riches and providence for future generations. In a way, you needed to be rich to become richer, and to gain opportunities of success. With wealth, even your voting power was different (see chart).
Such a culture may be unavoidable since it is basic human nature to covet after power, social status and success. With wealth, all these were possible in the Roman times. And so it became instinctive for them to use wealth to size up one another, and to modify their behaviour towards one another accordingly. ‘If you are rich, I need you to help me in my life, to help me climb up the ladder. I must honor you and seek your favor. If you are poor, then you should be under me and listen to my order. Because if you are poorer than me, you need me more than I need you.’ Such a culture of class systems may be unavoidable in those times, but it is lethally poisonous to the unity of a Christian community. The church would be divided by social classes and status. People were judged not by the contents of their faith, but by their superficial outward appearances. This could not be a community that loves one another.
And this is why James tells his church “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.” The social class system was contradictory to the glory of Jesus. Jesus was above all things, yet he humbled himself as a servant to all. The glory of our Lord Jesus Christ is about service and suffering for all mankind. If you believe in this glory, if this is your definition of glory, how can you possibly favour the rich and abuse the poor? If you have seen and believe in the glory, then it is like a light shining in the darkness of this world. It is a light banishing all discrimination, all prejudice and all unrighteousness. Yes, brothers and sisters, favouritism is a matter of righteousness because you are giving unequal treatment based on wealth. James says that when you do that “4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” You become a judge who is unjust, because you are favouring one side over the other without hearing the case. You may not be blatantly accepting bribes, but by your actions, you are showing a mindset that the rich, those in a higher social class, deserve better treatment.
Such a concept is already present in the Jewish laws. Leviticus 19: 15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. So if you believe in a glory that is rooted in love and sacrifice, then let the light of Jesus Christ expose and eradicate all darkness of unrighteousness. Love your neighbours as yourself. Your neighbour could be anybody, and they deserve the same status as yourself. For the life of Jesus has shown us the true way of living. Our identity is not based on our wealth and our social status. Who we are is based on the new life that is given by the grace of God. All of us, rich or poor, live by this grace. This grace makes us equals as a Christian community.
I think it is not easy for those who are used to the social class system to accept this. First, it may be a change in habit. If I have lived by the class system my entire life, how would I know how to treat others from now on? Before this, I know what to do. In my world, there are those above me, and those below me. Even with those within my class status, I can calibrate my behaviour according to our estimated wealth. Maybe Prada beats Gucci, and Gucci beats Armani, but if I'm carrying a Hermes, that triumphs over all. Without these usual social rules based on social class, I am totally lost. Secondly, it may also be simply impractical. Sure, I can pretend that we are all equal in church. But in “real life”, this guy is my master, that guy is my servant. When we step out of the church, would my master feel offended? Would my servant still listen to my instructions? The social class system is still in place in the “real world”. Many would be reluctant to change.
I understand that change is difficult. So before I continue, I would like to share an interesting cartoon I read from SMBC.  The son asks the father “Daddy, does Santa Claus exist?” Father replies, “Santa is a spirit of joy and an avatar of giving. Every time someone steps into your life to help you on your way, that’s a Santa Claus. Every time someone grants your heart’s desire before you knew what it was, that’s a Santa Claus. Every time you see want in someone and replace it with surplus, you’re a Santa Claus.” “So Santa is real?” “Yes, he is real in our hearts.” “Tell him I want a new game box, and all the games on this list.” The father took a look at the long list and sadly said “Santa Claus is dead and I killed him.”
Unlike Santa Claus, Jesus’ existence is not dependent on our actions. But our actions reflect if Jesus is truly real in our hearts. As I said earlier, change may be difficult. But if you take a look at the long list of the hard teachings of Jesus and give up, then like the father, in essence you are saying “Jesus Christ is dead and I killed him.”
Transformation is indeed not easy. Light shines upon darkness, but the darkness does not comprehend it (John 1:5). So James starts verse 5 with the word “Listen”. Listen. Let the word of God be the guiding force in your life. He gives 3 compelling reasons to abolish the entire social class paradigm. First, he talks about God's election. Why should the poor be a lower class? God also elects from the poor to make them rich in their faith. Outward appearances are poor indicators of inner faith. This is the first argument. Then he questions why the rich should be honoured. Aren't the rich also the ones who are capable of oppressing the poor? But one might argue, “well, it is precisely because they are powerful, so we honour them so as not to offend them and incur their wrath.” But James issues a serious charge “7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” When the rich oppress the poor, they blaspheme Jesus who has made all children of God equal. We are all answerable to God. The rich should not be honoured for their power, because they are accountable to God in their abuse of power. This is the second argument. The final argument which I will explore in detail next week is the argument of love. Favouritism breaks the Jesus' commandment to love one another. You cannot claim to love if you are divided by social class.
All three arguments from James are rooted in the life of Jesus. Jesus came in the humble persona of a carpenter's son. Who would have thought that he was actually the Messiah? This is the first argument. Jesus has power as the Son of God. But his glory comes from his willing submission to God. Power means nothing without proper use. Power becomes glorious when it is willingly sacrificed for the greater good. This is the second argument. But the third argument is the strongest. Jesus' righteousness with God is complete with his sacrificial love. It is vindicated by God with his resurrection. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. And James asks his church to ‘Listen’. And live a new life reflective of Jesus' life.
Today we do not have distinct social classes like in the Roman times. At least, not in Singapore. But that does not mean that we are not divided by the “have”s and the “have-not”s. In fact, I think it is even more dangerous. Our actions are not dictated by social expectations to obey the class system, they are further ingrained in our sub-conscious because it works so well in our society. ‘Meritocracy’ and ‘Consumerism’ are the hallmarks of our globalized and urbanized country. As concepts, they are good principles. Meritocracy rewards the capable. But unwittingly, we may become judgmental towards the poor. We think they are poor because they are incapable or not hard-working enough. Consumerism rewards the consumer-orientated. But unknowingly, we begin to idolize the rich. We want to favour them because of their greater spending power. The class system is invisible, and even more dangerous.
As I observe the rapid changes in the Singapore society, I am worried about our future. We do not have aristocrats of the past, we now have scholars. We do not have clothing that display our social class, but we have our branded goods and luxury cars. We do not have votes based on the size of our property, but your level of influence is still affected by who you are and who you know. I've heard how people talk about good schools and well-paying jobs. It is an unhealthy love-hate mindset of resentment and admiration. This culture will be even more pervasive in our next generation who grow up with parents immersed in this environment.
So we must be careful not to let such culture divide our community. If we claim to be believers of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, then our faith dictates that Jesus' glory is our glory. It is glory that is actualised by servitude, humility and love. We have no problems with wealth. Because wealth is a blessing that is instrumental for service and assistance to the needy. Live long and prosper. But if we are to judge, then let's measure one another by the love that we have for each other. We honour those who sacrifice for the community. We give voice to those deep in their faith and knowledge. Let this be our understanding of glory.
Let me put this in even more practical terms. It is natural for us to jump to conclusions about people based on their appearances. James intentionally gave us a graphic image of “2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.” We do not have social classes, but we would still form a good impression of the first, and a negative one of the second. Maybe not filthy old clothes, since clothes are cheaper these days, but maybe someone with tattoos or a punkish hairstyle or an uncouth mannerism. Not practicing favouritism doesn't mean that we now scorn the rich, or we embrace all fringe behaviour. What it means is for us to go deeper before forming a judgment. Someone may look rich, but maybe he gives generously to charity. Someone may look poor, but maybe it's because he is a pastor. I'm kidding. The point is to truly know a person. The best way to kick a bad habit is not to try to stay away from it. The best way is to form a good habit to replace it. The best defence against favouritism is to make it a point to know someone before you judge them. And let love and humility be our yardstick of judging what is glorious and good. And I think if we claim to love one another, this is the very least we can do.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_class_in_ancient_Rome
James 2:1–7 (Listen)
2:1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?