James 2:1-13 New International Version (NIV)
2 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. 9 But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Today, we will see just how hard James punches. The text today is one of those texts that we in middle-class churches, will nod our head and then try the best to ignore and forget as we leave this place.
James is continuing is argument which will come to its head next week of faith that does not change you is simply not faith. If you say you know the God of Scripture but your actions have not changed, your language has not changed, and as we will see the way you see people and treat people has not changed, you don’t believe! Or to put it in another way what you believe has not got into you.
As Martin Luther Put it, “we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that remains alone.”
Today James attacks the human tendency to look down on the poor and those outside of our group. And he addresses that if we say we believe, it will be marked by a concern for the poor.
Now, church, here is where we need to take stock and on some level repent, because the church has not always had the best track record for being a bastion for the poor. In fact, it became the call that Karl Marx used as his critique against Christianity.
Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right;
“Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
And it was due to the de-Christianising of Russia and Europe that cause the “proletariat” or workers uprising in Russia and then in Italy under Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism. The church had become politically powerful and yet this institute for the poor was oppressing the poor.
So, Marx was right in a way, the powerful had used religion to oppress the poor rather than uplift them. Unfortunately, we found out in the 20th century that when we replace religion with the state we get even more oppression.
Now, this was not how it was like in the first century and in fact it is still not true today. Christianity; the gospel is a great hope to the poor and becomes not an oppression but an incredible point of upliftment if we present it as the gospel.
Which is the first point we get from James;
1. God chooses the poor (v5)
In verse 5 we see James say that God has chosen the poor. This seems to be how God works, we see the same thing mentioned in 1 Corinthians where Paul says many of you were not wise, or rich or powerful but God chose the weak and the poor and the powerless.
You know what this is still how God works today; look at where the greatest growth in Christianity it happening? Is it in historically wealthy countries? Nope! It is south America, it is poorer parts of Africa, throughout Asia.
In fact it seems where a culture becomes richer they abandon God. Now the more cynical among you would say exactly religion is the opiate of the masses. But analyse those rich culture; they have a higher portion of suicide they have not transcended God, they have simply abandoned Him.
God choses the poor because the gospel is for the poor. Think about what the gospel is and why is it such hope for the poor, and why the middle class and the well to do reject it.
You see the gospel says, you are sick, broken, impoverished by your sin. Now to someone who is middle class or rich this does not resonate; because although they have a sense that there is something wrong in the world and although they know they mess up, they are convinced that their success is from their own hard work.
We have a deep down work to reward understanding of the world. So when the message of the gospel comes to us; we are like, ja I’ve got my problems, hopefully God can correct them so I can start getting about the hard work of getting to heaven.
Religion is loved by the middle class and wealthy, but grace leaves us scratching our head because we are not convinced that we are that bad; that impoverished.
To the poor, everywhere they go they are reminded that they don’t stack up, they are out, they don’t have what it takes, and for many poor, they will never even get the opportunity to even get a chance of entering race to compete.
The gospel identifies with them; I am a failure, I don’t make the grade, this is their world, but the beauty of the Gospel is that it doesn’t leave them there. The gospel says you don’t make the grade, you can never make the grade, but God honours you so much that He has chosen you and in Him the grade is already achieved! It is done!
And it doesn’t leave them in their poverty because it says, as poor as you are He has chosen you to be a part of His special work in the world!
And the rich and the well to do, say that unfair, I have all theses degrees, and achievements, why do they get used! And just like that we have missed the whole gospel! We have to get to the place like Paul does in Corinthians where he says, everything I have amassed and everything that has made me great; I consider them dung compared to what Christ did for me!
You can’t ever EVER work your way into God’s kingdom! This is why grace is for the poor.
And this is why mercy becomes the great marker for grace in our lives church, which is my second point;
2. Mercy for the merciful (v12-13)
In verse 13 James says;
“because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
There is a kind of play on words here in the Greek, James is saying mercy will be shown to those who show themselves to act kindly to the poor, who do acts of mercy.
And this is not alien in the New Testament; in Matthew 25 Jesus says on judgement people will be gather to his right and left, the sheep and the goats, and those that will come into the kingdom will be those who act kindly and who do mercy to others.
Now, if you are paying attention this morning; you might be thinking surely, Barry, you have just contradicted yourself. Your last point was all about how the gospel is that we cannot be good enough; that it is all about grace! And now you are saying we must act mercifully to make it! Surely that is a contradiction?
The answer is no, grace that doesn’t change your heart means that you have not got grace, or I should say, grace has not got you!
You are not saved by being merciful, but the sign you have understood grace is that you grow in mercy for others; specifically the lowest of the low.
And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If you say God has had such mercy on me a sinner, He has such love for me for overlooking my failures and shortcomings, but that does not change the way you see your fellow man, you are fooling yourself.
If you say with one breath that I am the chief of sinners, and with the next you look down on those who need mercy, you do not think of yourself as the chief of sinners. Mercy has not changed you!
I would argue, that the main problem with the world today is that we are trying to cosmetically change people without affecting the problems in their hearts and we are seeing more and more extreme problems come out!
It is like trying to teach a kid to be not lie, because if he lies he might become like one of the rotten kids out there. You are appealing to his pride. So you are preventing a sin with an even greater sin!
If the gospel gets you, church, the outworking of that, because you see yourself as a sinner, and the lowest of the low, in need of the death of Jesus Christ, the outworking of that is you start to identify and start to care for the lowest of the low!
This is not how we get saved, this happens because we are saved!
So, how, then do we change? What is the answer to problem this morning? If we go out to look after the poor to prove our salvation we contradict everything I have said, and if we don’t care for the poor we prove that we are not saved! I have left us with a great problem. So, what is…
3. The power to change (v1)
James in verse 1 gives us the whole answer,
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.
Brothers, those who believe in Jesus the “doxa” the glory, the face of glory literally, don’t show favouritism.
When we look to Jesus what do we see, the greatest glory that could ever be, the beauty of all creation, he who all creation was made and who made all creation. The glory of all the earth, the wonder above all wonders. He, as we are reminded in Philippians 2 did not hold onto this glory, but humbled himself. Unto death, for us, those who hated Him!
Let that pierce your heart! When you look at the one who had everything and gave it up in love for you, how can your heart not be broken by the lost, by the down and out by the weak.
We don’t have a heart for the poor because the gospel hasn’t given us a new heart! It is when we see ourselves in them, we are the broken, the lost the down and out! And our king sought us; how can his love not compel us to go! We, God haters, the poor, undeservingly received the love of the glory of all creation; what is it to love those who are like us; down and out!
You see the point is this; we don’t live this out because we don’t believe it; we are still convinced that we somehow deserve God’s love, that we are not that bad! And that is preventing us from living the gospel out!
If we, church, look into the glory of Christ, and actually, honestly, see ourselves there by grace (real grace) we will change! We will change deeply!
Church, the gospel is not a way to make a better you, it is the obliteration of the old you in response to the love of God, you are a New creation, the Old has gone the new has come!
Stare into the cross! Let the love of God seep deep into your soul! This is change you and the way you see the world!