Have you ever heard that old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? We use that line when talking about people or situations. It’s a warning about making surface judgments. Publishing companies put a lot of money and effort into the design and cover of a book though. Why? Because they know we naturally do judge books by their covers.
In today’s text, James tells us that judging a book by its cover may be fine with books, but not with people. He begins our passage today by asking this group of Christians a question about their faith in Jesus. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently some acts of favoritism were going on within that congregation. Today we call it discrimination. Hurtful partiality was taking place in the church community, and these actions of favoritism were based solely on outward appearances and social position in the community.
James describes the situation in which the believers had met for worship. The ushers notice two visitors come in and look for seats. One of them appears to be very rich. He has rings on his fingers, and he is dressed great! He is recognized as someone with a lot of influence in the surrounding community. Then the church usher sees a poor guy coming in next. He isn’t dressed well and obviously had a rough go of it.
The usher ends up treating these two individuals differently Ð one with deference, great respect, and one with disdain, total disrespect Ð all on account of what was on the surface. He says to the one, Come in! We’ve got the best seat in the house waiting just for you. We’re so glad you’re here today. It’s good to see you! The other one is treated rather coolly. You can sit over there in the back or, Well, it looks like we are out of seats. You can sit on the floor today at my feet. And James says it is very inappropriate for Christians to be acting that way.
Favoritism actually displays three things according to James: evil motives, bad theology, and stupidity. What could be the evil motives, or the evil thoughts, as it’s described in our text for today?
Boy, that guy, could be a big financial help to our congregation. We better roll out the red carpet and make sure we keep him around! This is a self-serving attitude, thinking of what we can get from that person.
In those days, the church was really taking it in the chin by the surrounding communities. People were questioning whether the churches were legitimate, and often persecution was happening. People were losing jobs and so on in the town if they were Christian. Perhaps the usher thought this rich-looking individual could help people see their church in a different light. It would be nice to have somebody with some facial recognition. Perhaps others would start treating them better. Maybe this individual could actually help them get back to work.
Even within the church these days, we have a tendency to be a little starstruck when a celebrity comes into worship. We really can pull out the red carpet and give them the all-star treatment.
I remember early on in my ministry, a fellow came to visit our congregation once for our evening service. He was with a friend who was actually his former pastor. The pastor took me aside and said, “You really want to be good to this guy. He’s a great giver and has a lot of money!” That attitude takes place, even today.
Well, the other person, the poor person, was treated in a totally different way, wasn’t he? Like, we don’t really care if you’re here or not. In fact, we’re not even sure we want your type around here. You’ll probably be wanting more from us than we can actually give you. He was ignored and dishonored.
James tells us that is terrible theology because, from the beginning of Scripture to the end, God has always shown a special place in His heart for the poor and the helpless. God loves the poor. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus began his ministry, He shared a passage from Isaiah 61 in His hometown: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has called me to bring good news to the poor.”
Not only were evil motives and bad theology behind exercising that kind of bias, James says it’s just plain stupid. He goes on to talk about the rich taking advantage. They are the ones who are always making life all the more hard for you and for the poor as a whole. Why would you turn it around with such inconsistent behavior and treat them like royalty. Don’t you know they stand opposed to the faith itself? Perhaps they did in those days. For instance, servants and slaves were part of the Christian movement. A rich person didn’t want them getting the idea that they were valuable and important and should be treated with dignity.
James says if this is happening, then I really question the sincerity of your faith in Jesus Christ. That kind of behavior is absolutely incompatible with Jesus’ teachings and how He treated people. Jesus loved the poor. The New Testament tells us He showed partiality to no one. He didn’t play favorites. If you are really committed to following Jesus Christ and Christ is central in our life, we will treat both the influential and the insignificant, the attractive and the unattractive, the rich and the poor, the same. We must treat them equally without thought of gain, without regard for what benefit we might or might not receive. We must love them impartially, not for what we can or can not get from them.
Some may wonder if this kind of behavior really happens in the church today? Well, we know it happens in society, don’t we! It happens in the workplace and other places as well in our culture. People get star-struck by celebrities or by people with lots of money. Let’s get that guy to stick around; he could be a big help. According to an article written a while back in The Wall Street Journal, most of us like to assume we’re enlightened, tolerant, and unprejudiced. However, a new study reveals many of us have a hidden bias against anyone with a foreign accent. According to a summary of the study and The Wall Street Journal, the further from native sounding an accent is, the harder we have to work and the less trustworthy we perceive the information to be.
It gets worse though. Researchers found that the heavier the accent, the more skeptical participants become. In other words, if it sounds like you’re not from around here, our suspicion radar is on high alert. Bias about you isn’t based on your character, it’s based on the fact that you talk differently.
It’s all a nice way of saying that, despite our best intentions, we all have pockets of prejudice and bias. We show favoritism toward people who most resemble us. James tells us we need to look to Jesus to help us route that partiality and love people who don’t resemble us.
An article came out in a survey by Newsweek magazine back in 2010. It said that, in all elements of the workplace Ð from hiring to politics to promotions Ð looks matter, and they matter a lot. The research provided these results: favoritism happens. Fifty-seven percent of hiring managers believe an unattractive but qualified job candidate will have a harder time getting hired. Sixty-eight percent of hiring managers believe that, once hired, looks affect the way managers rate an employee’s job description. Your looks matter more than your resume. Fifty-nine percent of hiring managers advise spending as much time and money on personal attractiveness as on perfecting a resume.
And it’s worse for women. Sixty-one percent of hiring managers Ð and sixty percent of them were men Ð said that women would benefit from wearing clothes that show off their figure.
We judge overweight people. Although 75 percent of Americans are overweight, about 66 percent of managers said they thought some managers would hesitate before hiring someone who is significantly overweight.
This article survey shows we also judge old people. Eighty-four percent of managers said their bosses would hesitate before hiring a qualified candidate who looked much older than his or her coworkers.
And finally, the survey shows we think favoritism based on looks is okay. Sixty-four percent of hiring managers said they believe companies should be allowed to hire people based on looks.
That kind of thinking also leaks over into the church and how we treat people who come in the doors of our congregational gatherings. Why? We are pressured by the society, as you have just seen. We are pressured by satan himself who wants us to act just opposite of the way our Master, Jesus Christ, would act. If there is one place where class distinctions should break down, it’s in the place of worship where color and political persuasion, type of Christian experience, money, status, rank, name, apparel, smell, size, and age mean absolutely nothing!
James goes on to encourage us to take a positive turn. It’s kind of a call to repentance. He says, “Beloved of God” (which is what we are in Christ) “do well when they are fulfilling the royal law, ÔYou shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Jesus was asked one day what was the greatest commandment. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). The Apostle Paul picks up on that theme in the book of Romans as he says, “It is all summed up in ÔYou shall love your neighbor as yourself'” as a follower of Jesus (Romans 13:9).
James says partiality is a sin. It is breaking the law of royal love, the law that was given to us by our King, Jesus. It makes you a transgressor when you show favoritism or treat people as less than others. “So speak,” James says, “and act like those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” What is that law of liberty? It is the law of mercy and grace that we’ve been shown by Jesus Christ. As we have been treated with mercy and grace through Christ, we also are to speak and act with the same mercy and grace toward all people. We are to treat one another as we have been treated by God through Jesus. Mercy triumphs. Mercy triumphs.
I am reminded of a parable Jesus told about a man who had been forgiven of a great debt Ð millions of dollars Ð by his master. Then he went out and treated a fellow servant, who owed him very little, terribly and had him thrown into jail. The master, hearing about this incident, called in the servant who had just received forgiveness and said to him, “You wicked servant! Should you not have shown mercy as I have showed mercy to you?” Jesus says, So it is. So it is. Your Heavenly Father expects you to show mercy and grace to those around you (Matthew 18:21-35).
The truth is, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, at the foot of the cross, the ground is level. All of us are sinners in God’s sight. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! All of us need the Savior! All of us are nothing more than poor beggars in the sight of God, and every one of us Ð all of us Ð “were died for” at the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” He had paid the penalty for the sinfulness for ALL people. At the foot of the cross, the ground is level. We are all beggars in the sight of God, no matter how much money is or is not in your bank account.
Remember that when you find yourself near someone who looks a little out of place and not like you. Maybe it will be a young couple making all kinds of noise in the worship service as they struggle to get all their gear and small children together. Maybe it will be an elderly person walking too slowly for your liking as they push a walker, hoping not to get bumped into and hoping someone will open the door for them. Maybe it will be a teenager with skin problems and wearing an outrageous t-shirt, with rings sticking out of his nose and his lips and his ears. Maybe it will be someone who weighs too much, or smells funny, or talks too loud, or has a strong fragrance on. Here, among God’s people, they are to be seen through God’s eyes, loved all the same.
A contemporary song came out a few years ago by a group called Casting Crowns. The song is, “If We Are the Body.” In the bridge, the songwriter says, “Jesus paid much too high a price to pick and choose who should come.” Amen to that!