My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James was writing as pastor of the church in Jerusalem, to Jewish Christians who had scattered because they were being persecuted. This was just a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, emotions were running high, and James’ main concern was to keep his readers focussed on loyalty towards God whilst they were under pressure in a society that oppressed them economically and abused them for their faith in Jesus.
In this passage, James makes it clear that his readers need to be very careful to welcome everyone. They must not be prejudiced against poorer people who cannot afford expensive clothes and accessories – in fact, they must remain impartial, just like Jesus. More than that, James exhorts them to remember the law as written in Leviticus, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is so much here that is important for us today at every level: Jesus’s ministry was in welcoming and caring for people, he talked to everyone, made everyone feel comfortable – from children to government leaders – even including people who were viewed by society as unclean (the ‘poor in dirty clothes’ of our reading). He healed their sickness.
We are still challenged as individual disciples and as church together, to live-out our calling; to minister to the poor, care for each other, care for those outside our doors and borders, and at all times, to remain focussed on God.
A church that takes time to be welcoming, healing and hospitable to everyone, prayerful and loving in all aspects of life, is demonstrating discipleship in action.
At the time of writing, it feels even more important that churches act as James directed – it’s time to protest against national and international policies if they violate these caring essentials of our discipleship. As church, we must offer compassion.
The Message Paraphrase of the final line of today’s reading has this to say: For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time.
Dear God, you sent Jesus, who loved and cared for every one of us in every situation. Help us to be like Jesus in everything we do. Help us to truly love our neighbour as ourselves, and to live this love as we minister to today’s poor, whoever and wherever they may be. Give us courage and guidance when we need to speak out, and Lord, don’t let us keep quiet. Keep us focussed on you. Amen
Linda Rayner is a member of Bramhall URC in Cheshire and URC National Co-ordinator for Fresh Expressions