Skeptics read Scripture, looking for those things they can’t accept. Followers of Jesus, in contrast, allow the Scripture to read them, looking for those things God can’t accept.
Tim Keller, in The Songs of Jesus
At the church I serve, I am in the middle of preaching through the book of James. Since James is such an intensely practical book (52 commands in just 105 verses), I’ve been challenging our church family to ask themselves two questions with every passage we study together:
What is God saying to me in this passage?
What am I going to do about it?
So this week as I was studying James 2, I had the intensely uncomfortable feeling that the Holy Spirit was stepping on my toes. Actually, stomping on them would be more accurate. With steel toed boots.
James 2 begins with this scenario:
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. 3 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,”4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 2:2-4 (NIV)
When I first read it, I thought to myself, “We would never do that in our church! We welcome everyone!” And it is true. I look at our church family and there is a great mix of blue collar and white collar, black and white, military and civilian, wealthy and not so wealthy. Mentally I was patting myself on the back for how much James 2:2-4 didn’t apply to us.
But then the Holy Spirit, in His annoying way, reminded me of what went through my head last Tuesday night. It was Halloween night, and our church held its annual “Light up the Night for Jesus” event. Families from our church decorated their cars and passed out candy. We gave away two bicycles and a big screen TV. We had an evangelism tent where people heard the gospel. We met hundreds of our neighbors. And as the new pastor at the church, I mingled, trying to say hello to everyone I could.
But I caught myself evaluating people as I said hello. I categorized them into the “Just Here for the Candy” group and the “Legit Prospects” group. And I realized that what often made the difference in my mind was how they were dressed: whether they were wearing a scary costume or a more “family friendly, remember this is a church event” costume; how many tattoos or body piercings they had, and other criteria that I’m ashamed to confess. I said hello to one young couple, new to the area because of a military assignment, and thought to myself, “Great prospects! I’ve got to remember their names!” But then I would pass an apparently single mom, there with maybe her mom, several kids, and shabbier clothes. And while I was friendly and pastoral, saying all the right things, I confess that I didn’t walk away from that conversation thinking about what great prospects they were. I didn’t remember their names.
And isn’t that exactly what James is describing in his letter? Sam Allberry, in his commentary on James, writes “favouritism is profoundly un-Christian. It says, in effect, that someone who is worth more to the world is worth more to the church…. [It] ends up judging one person’s soul as being of greater value than another’s and it does all this on the basis of superficial, worldly criteria.”
All those who claim to be Christians follow a homeless man (Matt. 8:20). We worship an executed criminal. We serve One who “didn’t have an impressive form or majesty that we should look at him, no appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2, CSV). And we follow the One who chose us, before the foundation of the world, even though we had not a single thing to offer Him except our sin and our brokenness.
God, forgive me for becoming a “judge with evil thoughts” last Tuesday night. Forgive me for letting the world determine how much spiritual worth someone has, based on what I think their contribution could be to our church. Help me see that favoritism of any kind stands in evil opposition to the gospel.