Congregations, sad to say, are not immune to the kind of social maneuvering and politics that can be found in any other gathering of people. People are looking to find their place, and once they have it, may consider it their right. And I don’t mean “place” in a merely metaphoric sense. For all their talk of being one body in Christ, some church-going folk can begin to believe that there is a particular place in the sanctuary, a specific seat, that belongs to them.
Some church members give gladly of their time and money, and with generous hearts. Others, however, give to be seen giving, as Jesus knew full well. And with that conspicuous charity may come a sense of entitlement. You may have seen it happen. A wealthy patron of the church, without whom the church budget would fall to pieces, comes to believe that a particular seat in the front of the sanctuary is “theirs,” even though no explicit agreement to that effect exists. Everyone simply “knows” it.
You know the rest of the story: one Sunday, an unwitting visitor walks into the building, looks around, and sits in the forbidden seat. Others notice, but don’t say anything, giving the visitor a wide berth. Then in walks Mr. Charitable, piously glad-handing the brethren. When he notices that there’s someone in “his” seat, the smile fades. What happens next is a matter of temperament. But it probably won’t be an attitude check: Hey, what am I thinking??? Sure, I usually sit there, but that seat doesn’t belong to me or anyone else. Praise God we have a visitor today!
Yeah. Not so much.
. . .
People of faith still look at the world through the lenses of the values and priorities of the culture in which they’ve been raised. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of doing this, just as we don’t consciously notice our glasses when we look through them. Learning to see through the lenses of Jesus’ “upside-down” kingdom takes practice.
And someone like the apostle James to help.
James wants to wake believers up to the way concerns about social status cloud their vision and skew their behavior. I’m reminded here of the story told by theologian David Nystrom of a time he was invited to speak at a ministerial conference being held at a hotel. In one meeting, there was a shortage of hotel employees. The beverages were self-serve, so Nystrom began pouring drinks for the other guests. Handing a glass to one man who approached, Nystrom tried to engage him in conversation. But the other gentleman, apparently thinking he was a hotel employee, simply turned away without responding. Later, the man was embarrassed to realize his mistake, but carried on as if nothing had happened.
Nystrom doesn’t say, but I can’t help but wonder: was this gentleman a pastor?
This is the kind of thing James decries, though he does so in loving terms, addressing believers as his beloved brothers and sisters. He offers two arguments as to why their preferential treatment of the rich makes no sense:
My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? (James 2:5-7, CEB)
Let’s start with the latter argument. Okay, let me get this straight, James seems to say. On the one hand, you complain about how the rich make your life miserable. They’re the ones who have the resources to haul you into court. They’re the ones who mock you for your faith and mock the Lord. But if rich folks walk into church you treat them like royalty. Isn’t that just a wee bit hypocritical?
The first argument, however, is the more substantive one. The gospel James’ readers have believed, the gospel Jesus preached, is about the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom that turns the distinction between rich and poor on its head. It’s the poor, the hungry, the distraught, and the reviled who are counted blessed, not those who are rich, well-fed, happy, and respected (Luke 6:20-26). If this is the word that’s been planted in believers (James 1:21) and bearing fruit, then they should be caring for those who are “poor by worldly standards,” and in particular, orphans and widows (1:27).
Charity to the poor, of course, can become just one more way of gaining status. We don’t just want to make someone else’s life better, we want credit for it, even more credit than we deserve. Don’t forget: Ananias and Sapphira tried something like that, and paid for that idolatrous mistake with their lives (Acts 5:1-11).
James isn’t saying, “If you behave in a particular way, then I’ll know for sure you believe accordingly.” Rather, he’s saying the reverse: “If you truly believe, you’ll behave accordingly.” He doesn’t just want to change people’s behavior; he wants to change the way they see. For to see and value others differently –as God sees — is how we remain “unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
And that, more than anything we might do to increase our social standing in the eyes of others, is the way of blessedness.