Today as I watched the well-maintained streets and infrastructure of South Tampa, I reflected on the numerous and subtle ways that individuals, communities and institutions let others know their place in the social hierarchy. Whose communities have well-maintained roads and sidewalks, whose schools are well-funded, whose neighborhoods are protected by resident police officers on a regular basis, whose needs and wants are addressed, who are invited to parties while who are treated as the town’s leper colony? The answer to these questions depends on where one ranks. We show respect and honor to those we consider as equals or superiors, while we treat with contempt and condescension to those we consider as equals. As someone who is particularly sensitive to social slights (having received a great many in my life), I have thought long and hard on this subject. What I would like to do today is examine why partiality is a heinous sin.
The Text: James 2:1-13
The main text for today’s reflection is James 2:1-13, which has a lot to say about partiality, and all of it bad. Let us examine this passage’s two parts, starting with James 2:1-7: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourself, and become judges with evil thoughts. Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?”
This passage is one of the more feisty “class-related” passages of the New Testament, and we ought to give it the attention it deserves. As the book of James largely serves as an early-Church era expansion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, let us ponder upon some of the verses of Jesus Christ’s that James was making an extended commentary upon. James appears to have in mind the contrast between Luke 6:20b: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” and Luke 6:24: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” It is a consolation to the rich, however they may be defined, to view this as referring to being “rich” or “poor” in spirit, but Luke records this verse in terms of wealth, saying that the poor are blessed because their blessing is yet to come, while the rich have received their reward and can expect no additional spiritual reward as a result of having lived a comfortable life.
James clearly points out that the partiality shown to those with physical wealth is at least one of the more important points being made here in condemning partiality based on class or socioeconomic status, by reference to the man with the gold rings and fine clothes versus the filthy rags (one gets a picture of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus here in the comparison). In Roman times, a gold ring and fine clothing was the prerogative of the Equestrian class, which was the second highest class in Roman society (just below the Senatorial class, the very top elites who were entitled by wealth and birth to sit in the Roman Senate). The Roman Equestrian class commonly held provincial offices, including the governor of Judea and other Imperial provinces. Truly, to be a member of this class, which required phenomenal wealth, was to be something. And yet James, speaking with divine inspiration, condemns those who would show favor to the very wealthy elite while showing rudeness to a poor beggar dressed in stinky rags. This ought to give all of us pause–for who among us has not at least been tempted to cultivate the friendship of elites and show impatience at the requests of the indigent (even among those of us who have spent most of their lives among the ranks of the indigent). For do not the wealthy exploit the poor, as they always have, and do not those who are ambitious social climbers cultivate the company of the wealthy, no matter how boorish or moronic they may be, maybe even making them deacons in their congregation in exchange for generous contributions and political support? (It should be noted, though, in fairness, that the Bible equally condemns partiality being shown against them on account of their class identity. We cannot help the stations to which we are born into except by such efforts as we exert to improve them and such divine providence as provides us opportunities to advance, or as calamity and disaster harm our prospects and position.)
Continuing on, James says in James 2:8-13: “If you really fulfill the royal law according ot the Scripture, “You shall love your brother as yourself,” you do well, but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
This is a very serious warning. James here appears to be making some very serious points that we ignore or gloss over at our peril. For one, James equates the showing of partiality based on class or wealth (though the case would apply to those who show partiality based on age, gender, ethnic or racial origin, and any number of other factors) with disobedience to the Second Great Commandment, that of loving our neighbor as ourself (indeed, he equates it with murder, which is widely recognized as one of the most serious crimes/sins in even the most debased of societies). This ought to give us pause. That James continues to dwell on this point, saying that one who shows partiality will be judged as a transgressor of the law under the threat of eternal judgment suggests that social snobbery is indeed one of the most heinous sins according to God. Why is this so?
The Problem of False Distinctions
To provide an answer to this question, let us turn to Galatians. Galatians 3:26-29 reads: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of who as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, ther is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” It would appear as if the equality of all brethren in the eyes of God and the problem of partiality are related. The fact that Paul so severely rebuked Peter for showing partiality to the Jewish brethren while snubbing the Gentile brethren (see Galatians 2:11-21) suggests that social snobbery carries with it an extreme condemnation from God.
Why is this so? Most of us take social snobbery for granted. White skin or a large pocketbook, in many parts of the world, is the ticket to embarrassing personal attention and flattery (both of which make me feel deeply uncomfortable). Meanwhile, natty and smelly clothing and an empty wallet are nearly universally the sign of a marginal social life, unless one is sufficiently entertaining as dinner company to be the occasional charity case. Some have to sing for their suppers, others have to beg, or go without.
The problem is a very deep and serious one, and we need to pay close attention to it, considering how important the matter is to Jesus Christ, Paul, and James. We will be condemned if we treat as unequal those whom God has called equal. If we give high status to some due to wealth, titles, racial origin, gender, age, positions, and treat others rudely or disrespectfully because they are poor, of the wrong ethnic origin, women, young people, the elderly, those without rank or title, then we will be condemned by God if we do not repent for our sin. This is not a light or laughing matter, but a nearly universal human sin, one that is so universal as to be nearly entirely neglected even by those who consider themselves scrupulously obedient to God’s commands (though strangely unaware of the Bible’s particular concern for the poor, the despised, and the mistreated).
The specific sin seems to be the first commandment. We are to have no other God’s before the God of heaven who made all human beings in His image and likeness, to be His children. To treat rudely what God has created in His image is to mock The Creator. To call unequal and unworthy of attention what God considered worthy of the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ, is to spit in God’s face and deny His grace to His children, and therefore also to ourselves, for we will be judged by the same standard we judge others, and however we treat the least esteemed and worthy of our brethren here on this earth we have treated our Lord and Savior Himself. Let us never forget that.
In light, therefore, of the seriousness of this command, and of the consequences of social snobbery on our spiritual destiny, let us resolve on several matters. First, let us repent of our inclination to favor those who can benefit us and exclude and ignore those who seem to be merely a burden. Let us repent for mocking and disrespecting the Family of God (both present and future) by classism, racism, sexism, ageism, or any other form of partiality. Let us apologize and seek the forgiveness of those who we have excluded and insulted by such means, whether intentionally or not. (Let this note be my own public desire for my own apologies to be accepted by those whom I have ever slighted in this manner.) Let us resolve to be aware of our prejudices and to struggle against them, and wherever possible, to seek the assistance of God in overcoming them and rising above them, so that we may no longer sin against Him by maligning and disrespecting His children and His creation. If we are able to do these, we may further develop the very character of God within us, and also see humankind as God sees us, as His potential and future children, one and all, without partiality or favoritism.