Friday, September 08, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 2:1-10

Verse-by-Verse Comments
1My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
The word translated as favoritism can also be rendered as partiality. God has no favorites.

This was true even in Old Testament times when God spoke of the Jews as His "chosen people."

They were chosen not because they were better than other people, more numerous, more powerful, or wealthier. They were chosen to be a light to the nations. God spent many generations revealing Himself and His nature to a particular people, the Jews, so that that people would, in turn, cast that light for all the world.

Long before God came to earth--as a Jew among the Jews--in Jesus Christ, there were non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to believe in the God Who had revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants. These Gentile believers were known as God-fearers and they were acceptable to God.

In spite of the misconceptions, God even revealed His nature to non-Jewish people during Old Testament times. He sometimes did so to the chagrin of members of His chosen people. The book of Jonah tells the story of a Jew, Jonah, commissioned by God to tell the population of an evil Gentile city, Nineveh, that because of their sin, their hometown would soon be destroyed.

Jonah ran away from this commission. He hated the Ninevites and was afraid that, God being God, if the Ninevites repented, God would relent. When the Ninevites repented, Jonah was angry with God, delivering an "I knew this would happen speech," while God explained that the Ninevites were important to Him too.

In Old Testament times, God chose foreigners to be heroes of the faith of the Jews. A prostitute from Jericho, Rahab, assisted God's people as they took possession of that city. A non-Jew from the country of Moab became the ancestor of Israel's great king, David.

God doesn't choose people because He likes them more than others. In his farewell sermon to the Israelites, just before his death and their entry into the Promised Land, Moses says:
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Did you catch the reason behind God's decision to make the Jews His people? Because He decided to make the Jews His people. It may read like a tautology, but the implication is clear: God chooses to love us because God chooses to love us.

In the New Testament, Christians are repeatedly warned not to think themselves better than others. In Christ, God makes us part of His people not because we've got it going on, but because God is gracious to sinners.

We're made part of God's eternal family, the Church, so that we can invite others to join us in repenting--turning from our sin--and believing in Jesus Christ. Peter, who knew a thing or two about the humilating hollowness of religious pride, wrote to first century Christians in Asia Minor:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
You're a chosen people, so that you can tell others that if you can be saved from sin and death, anybody can be saved from sin and death!

"We are all beggars," Martin Luther said just before he died. We're all dependent on the grace of God. God has no favorites. But God does have a people...whose mission it is to tell all the other beggars on the planet that through Jesus Christ, they can find new life, forgiveness, hope, and everlasting joy.

Obviously, when Christians show favoritism for the wealthy, as James is talking about here, they break faith with the God Who has no favorites.

2For 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, 3and 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,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
(1) The word translated as assembly is literally in the Greek, sunagoge, synagogue. It can reference gathering for worship or for the purpose of co-religionists to resolve conflicts.

(2) In spite of the use of this Jewish term, synagogue, James is clearly a Christian document, filled with references to Jesus, His function as Savior, and His teachings.

(3) Chris Haslam points out that the term seat is used by Jesus in Matthew 23:6, where He talks about how the Pharisees loved to have the best seats in the house for banquets and at synagogue.

(4) The Old Testament condemned judges who showed partiality in their judgments. Leviticus 19:15 says:
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
In Deuteronomy 1:17, Moses recalls establishing Israel's system of justice, when he told those he'd recruited to make it work:
"You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it." [Notice an appeals process, by the way.]
It's this insistence on impartiality in judging that lay behind James telling first century Jewish Christians that to look down one's nose on those who are poor is not of God.

5Listen, 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?
(1) One must be careful not to misread this passage. James isn't saying that God prefers the poor or the powerless. Abraham, the patriarch of God's people, was wealthy, a Bill Gates of his time. There were wealthy people among Jesus' first followers, probably including Peter, Andrew, James, and John, as fishing was a lucrative trade. (James and John, the Gospels tell us, were from a family that had servants.)

But wealth can be an impediment to faith. Wealth buys things like good medical care, fine food, services, and comfortable homes, all of which can insulate us from the turmoil, hunger, and disease that is the lot of the majority of the human race. No wonder Jesus said, " is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) (The disciples reflect the assumption that wealth represents a special blessing from God when they ask Jesus, "Then who can be saved?”)

Wealth makes it easier for us to delude ourselves and deem ourselves self-sufficient. The poor (and the powerless) have no such illusions and are therefore more open to God and His power in their lives. Those who rely on their money think of themselves as wise, cunning. But the Bible teaches (and I believe that life demonstrates) that, "...God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong..." (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Can the wealthy enter the Kingdom of God? Of course they can. But it's difficult to surrender to the servant King Jesus when you already think that you're king of the world. The blessedness of poverty (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20) is that it clears away the pride that prevents openness to faith dependence on God. It's self-pride that leads us away from God and toward destruction.

(2) To love God is to put Him above everything and everyone.

(3) The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) points out that Paul's writings demonstrate that there were wealthy and poor people among the early Christians. They didn't always meld well, although some of the wealthy became benefactors of the church and its poorer members. (See Romans 16:1-2 ; 1 Corinthians 11:18-22; 1 Corinthians 16:15-18.)

6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
(1) Chris Haslam writes:
The author seems to address both the rich and poor. The oppressive rich are considered as a class, characterized not only by wealth but also by oppressiveness and impiety, in terms reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets...Amos 8:4 says “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land”...
Of v.6, he goes on to say, "In view of v. 7, religious persecution is probably in view, as well as social and economic."

(2) Brian Findlayson notes of vv.5-7:
James makes an observation about life. Those without status and wealth seem to be the very ones who respond readily in faith toward the Christian gospel and thus are incorporated into the kingdom of God. Therefore, showing favoritism to the rich is a bit of an insult toward a group that represents the majority of church members.
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The royal law, says the NIB, refers to "anything having to do with a king...[and] a king's rule or kingdom." Of course, the king referred to is God and the royal law in question is from Leviticus 19:18:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
[Note that God underscores the authority behind the command with the words, "I am the Lord." Father Walter Burghardt asserts that Biblical justice differs from legal and philosophical notions of justice, useful though they are, because only the Biblical version of justice has behind it God's command to love God, love neighbor, and to handle the gifts of God with respect.]

Jesus, of course, incorporated Leviticus 19:18 in what's called The Great Commandment, Matthew 22:36-38.

9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
(1) NIB points out that James appropriates the Torah (the Old Testament law) "distinctively," especially in comparison with Paul.
(a) Faith and law aren't set against each other, but "are seen as complementary";
(b) Law isn't defined as ritual proscription. It's about the Ten Commandments and the law of love. Paul actually displays a similar understanding of the law in Romans 13:9;
(c) "James uses the teaching of Jesus to identify love of neighbor as 'the law of the kingdom.'"
(2) There is a unity to God's law. Its aim is love of God and neighbor. Violation of its particulars is a violation of its totality. Thank God for the forgiveness available to us in Jesus Christ:
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25)

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