Faith and Favoritism

June 25, 2017sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

James 2:1-13

James tells Christians to “not show favoritism” (James 2:1-13). Every one of us struggles because of a tendency to play favorites and show partiality in our minds or our actions toward others. Favoritism can show itself in many ways: regarding money, education, social status, physical attractiveness, gender, ethnicity, etc.

A. Defining the problem.

James is adamant about faith and favoritism not mixing (James 2:2,3). As believers, we have to get this right because God has put us in this time and this place: with so many people showing hostility and division in our country and with such diversity in our physical church neighborhood.

B. Three reasons not to mix favoritism and faith:

  1. Favoritism is an expression of doubt, not faith.  The original Greek words in James 2:4, and their use in several other places in Scripture, suggest that with discrimination we have doubt within ourselves that God will not reward us. We become double minded between God’s views & our views of others (James 1:6). God’s way is to help those who cannot love us back (e.g., widows and orphans, James 1: 27). God alone will reward believers, sometimes in life, but certainly in judgement day (James 2:12).
  2. Selective obedience equals disobedience. (James 2:9)  We cannot claim to obey God if we only obey Him when it suits us. To select certain individuals as favorites would be disobedient. Through God’s eyes, we love all people with our minds & actions, e.g.: in faith, we see the poor are rich in faith and heirs to the Kingdom.
  3. Refusing to show mercy is refusing to receive it.  In the same way that believers judge or show mercy, it will be shown to us (James 2:12,13). We might want vengeance, but do we want God to treat us similarly? Our relationship to our brother reflects our relationship to God, which centers in the Gospel: offering reconciliation to God with all who are sinful, hostile, distant, through the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ. James 2 teaches us to give to others the same love and mercy that He has given us in the Gospel.

We may have differences, but God calls us to Himself, and loves us however we are. With God’s help, may we do the same for others. May we truly welcome anyone who comes into our lives or our church.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you give an example of when you showed favoritism in the following areas: education, spirituality, ethnicity, age, gender, social status?
  2. How would you see the following through the eyes of faith: a person with AIDS, a 21st century feminist, a beggar with a sign at an intersection, a poor and uneducated immigrant from Syria, or a Hindu?
  3. Are we blinded by our own thoughts and opinions so that we cannot even see our favoritism? What can we do?
  4. Why not just “try harder” not to show partiality?
  5. What does James mean when he says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
  6. If mercy is the wellspring from which all of this flows, what mercy have you experienced that would flow in welcome, love, generosity, and hospitality to all others?

Introduction

We are continuing today in our study of the book of James called “Unwavering: Living out a single-minded faith.” Today, James is going to talk about favoritism. He is going to talk about the tendency for us in the church to treat people differently based on external factors like how much money they make. Good Christians, even Pastors, can show favoritism.

It reminds me of the story of two men who were shipwrecked on a desert island. Their ship sank in the middle of Nowhere. The minute they landed, the first guy panicked and started screaming “We’re going to die! We’re going to die!” The second man quietly said “I make $100,000 a month, and I tithe.” He laid down under a palm tree to take a nap. The first guy said “There is no food on this island and there’s no water.” The second one shrugged and said “I make $100,000 a month, and I tithe.” Finally, the first man said “You don’t get it. There’s nothing on this island. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and we’re going to DIE here!” The second man said “No, YOU don’t get it. I make $100,000 a month, and I tithe. My Pastor will find me.” Treating people differently according to their wealth. By the way, I have no idea how much anyone gives around here. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.

What I do know is this: Every one of us struggles on some level with what James is going to talk about today. Every one of us here today struggles with a tendency to play favorites. Every one of us struggles with a tendency to treat people differently, because of external factors like the amount of wealth they have, or how influential they are, or their age, or their education level or the color of their skin.

Some of us may struggle with that tendency less than others do, but if we are really honest it’s something that we all struggle with. We struggle regardless of where we fall on those characteristics, whether we are rich or poor, whether we are powerful or powerless, whether we are young or old, whether we are educated or illiterate, whether we are white, or black, or any color in-between. We all struggle if we’re honest with a tendency to play favorites. I struggle with that.

You’ve heard me say before that one of the ways God keeps my preaching from being hypocritical is by seeing to it that during the week I have to live out whatever I’m preaching on. It keeps me humble! This week has been no exception. It’s been that kind of a week God has taken me through a number of experiences where I really had to ask myself where I might be showing favoritism in my heart. Everything from eating a Ramadan/Iftar dinner with several Muslim-American friends and listening to them talk about their experiences to going to a U2 concert, which was awesome! Where the focus was very much on overcoming the things that divide us, favoritism has very much been on my mind this week. I’ve had moments where I felt like I did really well, where I brought the kindness and generosity of the gospel to a situation. And moments where I didn’t do so well. And moments where, to be honest, I was provoked as I puzzled through these things. I realized that I have a lot to think through and a lot to learn.

What James is going to say today is relevant to each and every one of us. Turn in your Bibles to James 2:1-13. Today as we look at this passage, we’re going to do three things:

  1. James is going to define the problem of favoritism for us.
  2. He’s going to show us three reasons that it is a problem why it’s wrong.
  3. We’ll talk briefly about how this plays out in our lives and in our church.

Let’s read James 2:1-13:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers: 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 those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
– James 2:1-13

It’s my prayer today that we will be a church where mercy triumphs over judgment – a church that truly lives out gospel kindness gospel mercy gospel generosity toward everyone God has placed in our path and everyone that comes our way, both those that may be like us whoever we are and those that may not.

The first thing James is going to do this morning is define the problem for us, and the problem is this:

Faith and Favoritism Don’t Mix

In verses 1-3, James gives us an idea of the issue he is addressing. In verse 1, he states the problem. Look at what he says: My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Literally, what James says is this: “Do not hold faith in our Lord Jesus Christ in one hand and favoritism in the other.” James tells his readers not to hold two things at once: faith and favoritism.

The word for favoritism here is interesting. This is the only place in all of Greek literature that it’s used, so we don’t know if James made it up or what. It is a combination of two Greek words “receive/welcome” and “face.” It literally means is to “receive the face” – to accept or reject someone on the basis of outward characteristics: “To receive the face.” James gives us an example of what he’s talking about:

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”
– James 2:2-3

Now this is a very long sentence and in the rest of the sentence (verse 4) he gives us the consequences of doing this, but for now James has described the problem. It is “receiving the face” – accepting or rejecting someone on the basis of outward characteristics.

That’s the problem. The example that James gives here revolves around money – around welcoming the rich richly and welcoming the poor poorly. As I kind of hinted in the introduction, there are all kinds of ways that we can “receive the face.” We can choose to accept or reject people not just on wealth, but on social standing, or based on their attractiveness, or based on their education level, or gender, or ethnicity – lots of ways to do this.

Last Sunday night, Kelley and I spent the evening with some American Muslims from this community. We had a wonderful meal together. They spoke about what life is like for them. One Imam said one of his real frustrations is when people see him and identify him as Muslim and feel like they automatically know him. Like they automatically know his education level, and his personality, and his values when they really don’t. Listen that’s receiving the face. That’s judging on the basis of the outward. James says we are not to do that. We are not to mix faith and favoritism.

Church, I just want to say one more thing about this. We have to get this right – this issue of favoritism. We have to. We’re getting much of it right. There’s a lot that we are doing well, but we have to get this right. We have to get it right, because of the time we live in. People are divided right now in our country. People are hostile. What better time for the gospel to shine than right now?

We have to get this right, because of the specific place God has called us to. We very much wanted to plant this church. We very much felt called to plant this church east of Capital, because It’s more diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, and income. If you’ve ever served here at River Bend, think of the incredible mix of ethnicities in this community. It’s beautiful! There isn’t really a dominant culture. There’s a pretty equal mix of East Asians and Africans and African Americans and Hispanics and Arabs and white kids. It’s amazing.

As for income, I was just thinking about this the other day. When I drive away from this building, in less than two minutes I can reach a development with homes that are much higher in value than mine, and a development with homes that are much lower in value than mine, and a development with homes that are about the same as mine. All within two minutes of here. That’s unusual. My point is just that whether we are black or white, whether we are wealthier or poorer, God has put us in this time and place where we really need to get this right. James tells us not to hold faith and favoritism at the same time. Now he’s going to give us three reasons why we shouldn’t do that.

Three Reasons We Shouldn’t Hold Faith and Favoritism

1. Favoritism is an expression (not of faith, but) of doubt.

Favoritism is an expression of doubt. Now that doesn’t show up in our English translations, but I think that’s exactly what James is saying, so let me show you what I mean. Look at verse 4. Now remember in verses 1-3 James said: “Don’t hold faith with favoritism.” Then he said “what I mean is if a rich man comes in and you treat him nice and a poor man comes in and you treat him badly.”  Verse 4 is the conclusion of that sentence. The New International Version puts it this way “if you do that, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”  Now look at that phrase at the beginning of the verse again: “Have you not discriminated among yourselves.” I’m not trying to be Mr. Smartie-pants here and criticize your English Bible, but I don’t think that’s what James is saying at all. The point isn’t that they’ve discriminated among themselves. Rather, James is pointing out something more significant.

To begin with the Greek doesn’t say “among yourselves.” That would be “en allhlois” – “among one another.” Rather, James says “en eautois” – “within yourselves.” So whatever is going on here isn’t between people. It’s within people (heart). Secondly, look at the word “discriminate.” The word is “diakrino.” “You have diakrinoed within yourselves.” Diakrino can mean to “discriminate.” But diakrino has another meaning that is much more common and that is “doubt.” In fact, it means “doubt” three times more often than it means “discriminate” in the New Testament. The other two times James uses it, it is translated “doubt.”

Remember versus 1:6 where James talked about single-minded faith: “He must believe and not doubt, for he that doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed.” That word “doubt” is diakrino. So I believe – and there are scholars that agree with this – that in today’s passage, James is not saying “you’ve discriminated.” Of course, they’ve discriminated! I think that what James is saying is that when you treat people differently, when you “receive the face,” when you play to the beautiful people, the wealthy, the powerful, those that are like you, you are doubting within yourselves. You’re like that double-minded man trying to live by two standards at once: playing to the world and playing to God. James’ real message is not just that they are dividing, but that the division is an expression of doubt.

Favoritism is not an expression of faith. Favoritism is an expression of doubt.

Sure enough, that fits with what James said last week. Remember last week James closed chapter 1 by saying “pure religion and undefiled is helping the orphans and widows.” Do you remember why we said that was pure religion? Because they can’t help you back. It requires real faith. They can’t reward you, so you have to believe that God will. Faith tells me to help those who can’t help me back, because I believe God will reward me.

Favoritism is the opposite. It’s doubt. It tells me to help only those who can help me back, because I can’t trust God to reward me. Favoritism is an expression not of faith, but of doubt. In fact if we take this view, James’ next few verses make perfect sense. They are an explanation of why ‘receiving the face’ is an expression of doubt:

Listen, my dear brothers: 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 those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
– James 2:5-7

Now originally when I looked at this, I thought James’ point was that his readers’ playing up to the rich doesn’t work. Like he was saying “Well you give them the best seats. You welcome them with open arms. How’s that working out for ya?” “Let’s see they drag you to court they blaspheme ”
So I thought he was pointing out that it doesn’t work.

But I don’t think that’s it. Rather, I think that what James is saying here is that they are not looking at things through the eyes of faith. They are looking at things through the eyes of unbelief – through the eyes of doubt. If they were looking at the poor through the eyes of faith, what would they see? People who are rich in faith and heirs to the Kingdom, because in James’ day and in most times and places, the poor are more receptive to the gospel. They have a lot less hope in this world, so they tend to be rich in faith. But they instead, they are seeing them as a nuisance.

If they were looking at the rich through the eyes of faith, what would they see? Someone who is damaging the faith, dragging them to court, blaspheming, etc. But instead they are looking through the eyes of this world, the eyes of doubt, and through those eyes they only see the rich as someone who can help them back! So in all of this James wants his readers and us to understand that when we treat people according to their outward characteristics, when we play to the powerful, it is not an expression of faith. It is an expression of doubt.

So that’s the first reason that favoritism is wrong. But there’s another reason this is wrong. It is wrong, because selective obedience to Jesus’ command equals disobedience.

2. Selective obedience equals disobedience.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
– James 2:8

You are doing well if you treat people – even rich people – according to the royal law. What is the royal law? Love your neighbor as yourself. Treat your neighbor the way you want to be treated.
Why is it the royal law? Because it’s the law of the King. Jesus said it was the second great commandment. So yes you are doing well if you treat the rich the way you want to be treated.

But look at verse 9: “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

Yes it’s good to love the rich as you love yourself, but you also have to love the poor the same way.  Otherwise, you are showing favoritism, and you are committing sin. James goes on to say you are convicted as a lawbreaker. Why would James say that?

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
– James 2:10-11

What on earth is James saying here? Is he saying that we are all the same? So that if you tear the tags off your pillows (you know the ones that say “do not detach”), you’re the same as an axe-murderer?

No, that’s not his point. I think his point is that we cannot claim to obey God if we only obey him when it suits us! Selective obedience is the same as disobedience. If Calvin only obeys me when he wanted to anyway, is he obedient? NO. Say I’m driving down the road, I’m in my lane, I have my seatbelt on, I’m not drunk, I have my license with me, I signal nicely every time I change lanes, but I’m going 98mph in a 30. When that policeman pulls me over, how do you think he will respond if I say “Well, I don’t like that rule. It doesn’t suit me.” “So, I’m doing almost everything else right here don’t ticket me!” Do you think he’ll ticket me? I imagine so! Why? Because I’m a lawbreaker! I’m disobedient to the state. The same code that said “fasten your seatbelt: says ‘drive 30 in a 30!’

James says “don’t deceive yourself.” Don’t tell yourself that you are obeying Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself, if you only count as your neighbors those who are rich or beautiful or influential or are like you. It is so easy to tell ourselves that we love our neighbor, if we can just narrow down the definition of “neighbor: to someone who is like us or someone who can help us back when we help them.

But James says that isn’t good enough! (1) Favoritism is a display of doubt, (2) And partial obedience is disobedience. Finally, James gives us a third reason we shouldn’t ‘receive the face.’

3. Refusing to show mercy is refusing to receive it.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
– James 2:12-13

The first part of verse 13 there “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has shown no mercy” sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? Does James really mean that? In point of fact, he does. This is a summary of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” He said “If you do not forgive others, you will not be forgiven.” So James is reminding us of Jesus’ teaching that if we show no mercy, we will receive no mercy.

This is a play on words because to “to do mercy” in Hebrew or in Greek means both to judge someone mercifully – to forgive them – and it means to do kindness to the poor. So James is reminding us that the kindness we show both to those who wrong us and to those who need help will influence the kindness we receive from God.

It is the consistent testimony of Scripture that believers will be judged for our deeds. It is the consistent testimony of Scripture that our relationship to our brother affects our relationship to God. So when we ask ourselves what kind of mercy we should give to those around us to those who are different than us the answer is “the same kind of mercy we want to receive”

So why does James warn us against ‘receiving the face’?

  1. Because doing so is an expression not of faith, but of doubt
  2. Because selective obedience to Jesus is disobedience
  3. Because refusing to exercise mercy is to refuse to receive it

Now lastly, let me just give a couple of thoughts about application.

Thoughts About Application

Obviously, the way for us to apply this passage is to love our neighbor – for us to welcome as a church everyone that God brings to us regardless of who they are, no matter what their income or education level or skin color or culture. To do that not just when we’re at church but to do it in our lives. That’s the obvious application, but let me just note a couple of things before we stop today.

  1. The Balance of Scripture. Notice that Scripture takes a balanced approach to this issue. It doesn’t favor rich or poor. When you first look at this passage it can really seem like James is down on the rich, right? I mean he talks about the rich as persecutors and as blasphemers, and he’s going to have more to say about the sins of rich people later in this book. So it kind of seems like James is saying “Rich = Bad.” It seems kind of like James is saying “Poor = Good.” James says God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. He talked earlier in the book about the high spiritual position of the poor. So it would be easy for us to conclude that James is saying that the rich are bad and sinful and the poor are good and sinless. So if you’re poor, you’re automatically in the right. When I used to teach this passage to my students in Zimbabwe (many of whom were truly poor), it was all they could do not to stand on their chairs and cheer! But then I would ask them: Who was this passage – this warning about receiving the face – written to? Was it written to the rich or the poor? When you read the passage and the book carefully, it was written to the poor. Because James fully recognizes that although wealth does make us more susceptible to certain sins the poor can “receive the face” just as much as the rich can. James doesn’t shy away from warning both rich and poor about the spiritual dangers that they are susceptible to. So I notice the balanced approach of Scripture.
  2. The Basis of our welcome has to be the gospel. The basis of James’ command not to receive the face – the basis of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” – really the basis, the motive, the wellspring out of which all this flows – is the gospel. It’s very important that we understand this, or we’re going to turn this into just one more area of our lives where we need to try harder. It’s going to get washed away like all our other New Year’s resolutions. But this isn’t about that. It’s not about trying harder. It’s about the gospel.

See in the gospel, God reached out to me, he welcomed me, he invited me to himself and showed me hospitality – not when I was like him, not when I was good, or deserving, or able to offer him something in return. Rather, God welcomed me when I was distant and sinful and hostile. Scripture says that “while we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us” to reconcile us to God and to forgive our sins. That’s the welcome that we received from God. It’s very important that we understand that for a couple of reasons:

  1. Welcoming people can be hard. It’s not always easy to connect with someone who is poorer, or richer than you. It’s not always easy to connect with someone who’s less educated or more educated than you, with someone who’s darker or lighter prettier or uglier. It can be tough! But in asking us to do this, God is only asking us to give to others the welcome the love the hospitality that we have already received from him. He’s not asking us to generate this on our own by trying harder. Rather, he’s asking us to take what he has given us in the gospel and share it with others. We also have to understand this because:
  2. Welcoming people may not always go the way we think. We might read this and think that James is saying that we should welcome people that are different than us, because if we get to know them we’re going to find out that they are wonderful, that they are good and easy to get along with, and that we agree with each other on more stuff than we ever thought if we’ll just get to know each other. That may happen. I think, in general, if we welcome people that are different than us, we will find these things in many ways. But we may not. You may get to know someone and find out that they are not easy to get along with or that you don’t actually agree. What do you do then? That’s when the gospel shines! See, I’m not loving them because they are good, or right, or because we agree. I’m loving them because I was bad and wrong and disagreeable and God loved me anyway. I want to take that same grace that I received and share it with them. I’m not loving them because they are good. I’m loving them, because God is good. Good enough that he loved me even when I was bad. In that way, the gospel motivates. It empowers. It gives shape to all that we do. It causes us not to receive the face but to welcome truly welcome everyone that God brings through those doors.