January 22, 2021

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Nine

Photo by Don O'Brien

Church on Main Street. Photo by Don O’Brien

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Nine: Are you not discriminating among yourselves?

We enter the central section of the Epistle of James today. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail in reverse order.

James Section 2

James begins with matters related to relations between the rich and the poor in chapter 2.

My brothers and sisters, as you practice the faith of our Lord Jesus, the anointed king of glory, you must do so without favoritism. What I mean is this: if someone comes into your assembly wearing gold rings, all dressed up, and a poor person comes in wearing shabby clothes, you cast your eyes over the person wearing fine clothes and say, “Please! Have a seat up here!” but then you turn to the poor person and say, “Stand there!” or, “Get down there by my footstool!” When you do this, are you not discriminating among yourselves? Are you not turning into judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters. Isn’t it the case that God has chosen the poor (as the world sees it) to be rich in faith, and to inherit the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. After all, who are the rich? The rich are the ones who lord it over you and drag you into court, aren’t they? The rich are the ones who blaspheme the wonderful name which has been pronounced over you, aren’t they? Supposing, however, you keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. But if you show favoritism, you are committing sin, and you will be convicted by the law as a lawbreaker. Anyone who keeps the whole law, you see, but fails in one point, has become guilty of all of it. For the one who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” So if you do not commit adultery, but do murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act in such a way as people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom. Judgment is without mercy, you see, for those who have shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.

• James 2:1-13, KNT

Why does James bring up the subject of favoritism here?

It seems that the recipients of this letter were primarily poor Jewish-Christian believers scattered in communities throughout Palestine and perhaps beyond. There were also, it appears, at least a few well to do members of the congregation, as well as other wealthy landowners in the region. However, most of them were relatively impoverished, working for powerful employers who were taking advantage of them in various ways.

Imagine yourself in that situation and think about what it must have been like to be in a position of virtual servitude, treated as inferior and expendable. Then one day, a prominent landowner deigns to attend your assembly. On the one hand, you probably resent his presence, but on the other hand you see an opportunity. Perhaps if you treat him with special courtesy and honor, it will make life easier for you. Maybe he will remember you the next time he is looking for help, or at least might think twice before punishing you. Some preferential treatment might be a wise move and relieve a little of the daily stress.

So, when he comes into the assembly you spot your chance. You take him by the arm and escort him to the best seat. Another visitor, a poor worker, is sitting there already, dressed shabbily, looking like the lower class person he is. You shoo him out of the seat and point to the back, directing him to the standing section or to the lower floor seats. You brush off the dust he left on the good seat and put on your best manners as you welcome the rich man and make yourself available should he have other needs during the service.

In his commentary, Peter Davids suggests this text might reflect an even more tempting situation. He thinks that James is describing, not a worship gathering, but a judicial assembly, a “church court” in which impartial verdicts for people with community complaints would be rendered. The “judgment” language pervasive throughout this passage seems to support a meeting in which decisions are made. If this is the context, the community is pandering to the rich and making unjust decisions in their favor, at the expense of their poor brethren.

The point is, James doesn’t just bring up the subject of favoritism out of thin air. Something like one of these scenarios must have been taking place in the congregations of exiles he was addressing. And he finds it unacceptable for people of faith to act this way.

  • Jesus did not discriminate between people based on human class standards. That’s what you just did.
  • Jesus pronounced blessings upon the poor. You have dishonored the poor person.
  • In fact, Jesus made it a point to prefer the poor, not because they are better or more important, but to make it clear that God loves even those we consider unworthy. However, your actions suggest that rich people are more important and that “the way the world works” is the standard Christians should follow.
  • Jesus was never afraid to point out the oppressive sins of the rich and powerful. But you have conveniently forgotten them, hoping that your favoritism will win them over and bring you favors.
  • Jesus taught you simply to love your neighbor as yourself, remembering that you are loved by God. Your actions show that you don’t get that. You have acted in a judgmental way toward the poor man and have shown unwarranted deference to the rich. This is not what God’s word teaches us. You have failed to follow your Father’s instructions (law, or torah).

In my experience, which has mostly been in small town and suburban congregations, this is one of the great unspoken sins of American Christianity.

Some groups (the Assemblies of God come to mind, as well as many inner city missions and congregations) understand the power of this teaching and seek to level the playing field between people of different socio-economic contexts.

But the suburban churches with which I’m familiar don’t even recognize that there’s a problem here.

I’ve heard people who have attended a church for awhile complain to the pastor that they cannot become members because too many in the congregation come from the “other side of the tracks” and it makes them feel uncomfortable so they’re leaving.

I have watched parents pull their children from youth groups because the youth pastor was including unchurched teens from less desirable neighborhoods.

I have seen church people resist getting involved with unwed mothers and needy families from local ministries like pregnancy centers and shelters. They are happy to have the parachurch ministry care for them at their facility, but they resist having them become part of the congregation in any significant way.

I have witnessed congregations who are willing to take in a “token” poor family and minister to them. This makes them feel good, as long as they remain the “givers” and the poor can be their “project.” But they never seem to accept them as equals.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about racial, ethnic, language, or lifestyle differences and how middle and upper-middle class American Christians struggle with accepting true diversity and equality in the church.

Almost every day now, as a hospice chaplain I walk into neighborhoods and homes that I know most of the congregants with whom I’ve rubbed shoulders would recoil from. Frankly, sometimes I do too. So conditioned am I by the comfortable station of life with which I’ve been blessed that I must regularly ask God for the grace to love my neighbor as myself, without a hint of partiality or prejudice.

As Peter Davids says in his summary of this text:

James clearly believes that the poor have a very important place in the church because of the leveling effect of the Christian gospel. True faith has no place for the social distinctions of the world. In fact, if a Christian [church] should so much as consider these distinctions, it becomes by that act evil and sides with the wealthy who persecute Christians.

• • •

Photo by Don O’Brien at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Wednesdays with James
Previous Studies


  1. We have to take into account that the poor members of the congregation may have been afraid that if they did not give the rich better and preferential treatment, they would be abused by them later on; the inducements toward preferential treatment of the rich would be negative consequences for not doing so, as well as positive ones for doing so.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > if they did not give the rich better and preferential treatment…

      +1,000. This. Also, some are so accustomed to preference that lack-of-preference is offensive. See: “””the suburban churches with which I’m familiar don’t even recognize that there’s a problem here”””

      I was involved for years in youth ministry in two mixed income churches… oy vey. Hats off to anyone who can do that without selling your soul. Privileged parents are a bloody nightmare; I would get dragged into a conference room and scolded, while a “Pastor” stood in the corner, silent [who might offer consolation and words of support *afterwards*].

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Privileged parents are a bloody nightmare; I would get dragged into a conference room and scolded, while a “Pastor” stood in the corner, silent [who might offer consolation and words of support *afterwards*].

        Amazing the perqs tithing six figures to the church can get you.
        Bought and Paid For.

        “DO YOU KNOW WHO *I* AM?????”

    • I asked a police friend, over lunch, why he chose to work the poorest zone in the city. His answer was illuminating. He said that if he gave a matron living in one of the better neighborhoods a ticket, sooner or later he’d get a call from the Captain asking why he’d given the ticket. But in the poorest neighborhoods, nobody knows the Captain, nobody calls the Captain. He said it was the well-off and powerful he had to fear, the poor weren’t a threat to his job.
      In life, I’ve always been more cautious around the powerful, rich and well connected. Self preservation. But James is right, it is the wealthy and powerful who are the problem; they don’t actually deserve preferential treatment.

    • Yep.

    • And James is gonna let the rich have it in their turn, in spades – coming soon to a Wednesdays with James near you.

  2. And just see what happens when you fall out of that comfortable upper middle class life through a layoff or job reduction. The difference with which you are treated is palpable. You now have “cooties” and they might be catching. It’s like you stopped having faith because you no longer are “prospering”.

    • Being poor, and being overweight, are treated as two of the cardinal sins in America, for Christian and non-Christian alike. After all, in the land of opportunity, how can you be a loser? Jesus and America want winners, or losers who can, too without much difficulty, be turned into winners; didn’t you know?

    • Mike, sad but very true.

    • One More Mike says

      Was attending and working in several “ministries” at a mega-church wannabe in the very prosperous area where I live. When I was forced to retire early and was unable to find a job even closely approaching my former income, I laid out my heart to the “pastor” about feeling unworthy, wondering why I was so marginalized, all the things you think when you’ve had your whole world disrupted. When I finished talking the “pastor” asked me, “So when do you think you will be able to tithe at your previous level again?” Didn’t see that coming. So I walked out into the wilderness and have never looked back.

      All of the churches here have Food and Clothing “Pantries” so the “less fortunate” can get help. But they’re all open on Tuesdays for a few hours, to insure that the less fortunate don’t contaminate the “faithful”, I guess. When I was one of the fortunate/faithful, I thought those “ministries” were a good work. I’ve come to realize that if they were truly a “good work”, they’d be open on Sunday morning from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM in the coffee/fellowship area.

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    Monasticism, rightly lived, has the potential to put an arrow through the heart of this sort of thinking. I wonder if the decline in monasticism, and in daily contact with monastics by laboring and governing people, hasn’t added to our dis-ease in this area.

    There is a rising consciousness in American Orthodoxy on the part of both cradle and convert that not enough of our young people are choosing monastic vocations, and that this results in an anemic Orthodoxy that is prone to materialism, consumerism and classism. All the talk about “emphasizing lay piety” and “the primacy of the parish” both here in the US and in historically Orthodox countries merely underlines a growing contempt for monasticism and asceticism.

    All that said, people prefer eating to starving, and they prefer clothing and sheltering their children to letting them shiver and freeze. Historically, the path to that has been currying favor with the powerful and influential. Drawing close to God or having someone else draw close to Him on your behalf is seen as having a sketchier track record, Sad but true.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I wonder if the decline in monasticism, and in daily contact …hasn’t added to our dis-ease in this area

      I have little doubt this is true.

      It is clear that, first, proximity matters. This is what Diversity advocates often poorly articulate. Just being around ‘other’ people creates the potential for relationship, empathy, etc… When you never see them: be they monks, poor people, mentally ill, old people, other colored people, etc.. this door is mostly closed [except often in a paternal/managerial way – which is always tainted].

      That isn’t THE answer. It is certainly possible to dismiss, or even despise, people you see day-to-day. But if you don’t even get to Proximity I am skeptical people can move beyond that.

      A whole lot of Americans experience a very homogenous existence. In which case a lot of this is nearly inevitable. … it is also boring [which I believe helps explain some other things].

      > merely underlines a growing contempt for monasticism and asceticism.

      Which immensely diminishes the range of perspectives available to the community.

    • It seems to me that James (Jacob) can’t be understood well unless he is seen as an ascetic monk, more than likely a member of the Essene community but certainly influenced by them. The Essenes would have been familiar to the general populace of Jerusalem. They took vows of chastity and poverty and obedience, led a highly disciplined life and would likely have been greatly respected by the general population and grudgingly tolerated by the ruling elite, in the way that the Templers did not dare speak disparagingly publicly of John the Baptist. This would have allowed James to continue meeting and teaching his radical sect in the Temple even as he spoke so harshly against the rich and powerful. At least until he was finally murdered by them, which pretty much kicked out the jams for all that followed, ending with the total destruction of the Temple religion.

      • Actually, I thought James (Jacob) was the leader of the early church (not Peter), the first bishop of Jerusalem, the head of the first council, and (depending on your faith tradition) either the older stepbrother or the younger half-brother of Jesus. Unless all the Essenes weren’t in Qumran….

        • In that one of the southern gates in the wall of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was called the Essene Gate, they must have been a familiar sight in the city, if in fact they wore some kind of distinctive dress, maybe like the Amish around me. Doesn’t mean that James was an official member but he could have been, like Luther was an official Augustinian monk while working as a professor of theology. Qumran apparently was just their headquarters and main community. I would agree with your description of James and personally think he was the older stepbrother and baby sitter for Jesus. Both Essenes and Christians would have been considered Jews at the time of the Jerusalem Church, tho maybe weird Jews.

  4. Ronald Avra says

    The church body, that Jesus bought with His blood, is the place where it is intended that we all stand on equal footing before the God who made us. Why this is not clearly obvious to those who imagine to follow this faith, is baffling to me.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Why this is not clearly obvious

      Because we are bathed in culture from the moment we first gulp air. Sometimes it isn’t “obvious”. Especially for those on the up-end of the spectrum it can easily feel like thats-how-things-are; and on the other side it can become habitual deference. Humans are very habitual.

      The antidote is courageous leaders. The church has a desperate shortage of those. The longer we go without them I suspect the more courage is required.

      I am grateful for Pope Francis.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Especially for those on the up-end of the spectrum it can easily feel like thats-how-things-are; and on the other side it can become habitual deference. Humans are very habitual.

        “Kiss Up, Kick Down.”

  5. I received the following comment via Facebook:

    I attend a young urban ‘hipster’ church and while I’ve never seen someone blatantly moved from their seat, I have seen ‘less-cool’ individuals ostracized from social groups. I think in many ways this article of rich/poor relations could just as easily be applied to cool/uncool relations or for that matter educated/uneducated.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > cool/uncool relations or for that matter educated/uneducated.


      I remember the clear distinction between Church Kids and Nonchurch Kids when after high school I started attending a large mega-ish church on the border of suburbia and the city. Heaven forbid a female Church Kid sit next to a male Nonchurch Kid; they would get up just before the service started and sit elsewhere – otherwise the whispers would start running. That feels so welcoming. There were clearly two sides [due to both sides, of course].

  6. Interesting that just last evening I had a conversation with a woman I had never met until then. She shared with me that after 20+ years at her church, she left. Why? After her husband passed away, almost no one seemed interested in her. She said that in the year or two after he passed away, she got exactly 2 invitations to dinner or any sort of social interaction. Two. She said she now attends a church that she was always told was “too liberal” but is invited to join all sorts of social activities and feels valued as a person.

    The little things do matter.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > The little things do matter

      I would prefer to say it as: we are wrong about which of the things are big and little. Perhaps Hospitality is more important than Theology.

  7. The structure of the book of James as outlined here is chiastic. Chiasm is found all over the NT; it’s sometimes hard to see in English translation. The point is found in the middle of the passage, and the supporting points for it are parallel and go “upwards” and “downwards” from it. James was educated and wrote in the literary conventions of his day.

    The chiastic structure is easier to find in text-only bibles without headings. Colossians 1,15-22 is an example that is easier to see, if you line out the key words. Here’s how Wright does it in “The Climax of the Covenant” (hopefully the spacing will come out as I intend; I have not had any success trying to code in italics, bold, etc.):

    who is the image
    of God, the invisible,
    *firstborn* of every creature;
    *because in him* were created all *things in the heavens and in the earth*, the seen things and
    the unseen, whether thrones or lordships, whether rulers or authorities, *all things through him
    and to him* were created;

    (point) and he is before all things and all things hold together in him;
    (point) and he is the head of the body, the church,

    who is the beginning;
    *firstborn* of the dead ones
    so that he might become in all things himself pre-eminent
    *because in him* was pleased all the fullness to dwell
    and *through him* to reconcile *all things to him*,
    making peace by the blood of his cross (*through him*),
    whether *things on the earth or things in heaven*.

    So James’ point is to be found in the center, between the opening groups of parallel paragraphs and the explanation of those ideas in the body of the letter, as in the chart in the first post. I would say the point from which James elaborates “upwards” and “downwards” is 1.22-25. That seems to me to be the center – though not in the center of the text in terms of placement, but rather the idea – and the keywords go up and down from it.


  8. I think the jig was up for the church in 325 AD. The bishops all gathered, then the Emperor showed up and *they all stood up and remained standing until he sat down*. It’s been all downhill since then.

Speak Your Mind