Looking Past The Cover
Favoritism, Love, Mercy, Law, Judgment
Imagine a Sunday morning and the church is filled with visitors. Suppose in our congregation visiting this day are a young African American couple from WIU, a couple of young men of middle eastern descent, a well-respected surgeon from Iowa, a couple of teenagers, a poor family from the community, and a successful businessman from the area. James poses a question: “Who will get your attention? Who will you make sure to welcome?”
Perhaps you have heard the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”. The cover of the book may look good, and Publishers know there are people who are drawn to a book because of the cover, but the cover is no guarantee the book has anything worthwhile to say. By the same token a valuable piece of literature could have a very uninteresting cover.
It is the same with people. The “cover” or external appearance and circumstances of a person does not tell us what is in the heart and character of that person. The people addressed by James seem to have forgotten that fact. James begins chapter two with a very clear command: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” The construction of the Greek shows that James was forbidding a practice already in progress. The Greek text literally says, “don’t receive the face”. In other words don’t judge the book by its cover.
Does this happen today? You bet it does! We have a tendency to rank people and show favoritism based on a number of issues:
- Ethnic Background
- Income Level
- Appearance (do clothes really make the man?)
- Ability (athletic, speaking, intellectual, financial)
- Religious affiliation
- Life Experience
In our text this morning James will give several reasons why this practice is wrong. To answer the question we posed at the beginning, “Which visitor should you give the most attention to?” James hopes we’d answer: “whichever person is sitting closest to me.”
Positively: We are to See Others As Jesus Saw Them
James begins, “as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” He appeals first to our relationship with Christ. It is because we are His followers that we must scorn any form of favoritism. Think about the example of our Lord,
- He commended the contribution of the widow at the temple over the large sums of the rich because “she gave all she had”
- He spent time telling a Samaritan woman who had three strikes against her (she was a Samaritan, a woman, and had a bad reputation) about the living water He could provide for her.
- He went to the home of the tax-collector Zaccheus for dinner (it would be like a candidate having lunch with a mobster). He made another tax-collector (Matthew) one of his disciples.
- He touched and cared for the lepers who were considered outcasts and defiled those with whom they came into contact.
- He called into service a rag-tag group of commoners to be His disciples instead of the religious elite.
- Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor”
- In the book of Acts, Jesus called on the anti-Christian zealot by the name of Saul and made him the preeminent missionary and first church theologian renaming him, Paul.
Jesus was unimpressed by the cover a person wore. He looked at the heart. Since Jesus looked at the heart of people rather than their appearance or their income statements, we, as his followers, should scorn all superficial rankings.
The story is told about a woman who lived across the tracks and wanted to join a very fashionable church. She talked to the pastor about it, but he sought to discourage her. He suggested she go home and think about it carefully for a week. At the end of the week she came back. He said, “Go home and read your Bible for an hour every day this week. Then come back and tell me if you still feel you should join.” Although she wasn’t happy about this, she agreed to do it. The next week she was back, assuring the pastor she wanted to become a member of the church. In exasperation he said, “I have one more requirement. You pray every day this week and ask the Lord if he wants you to come into our fellowship.” The pastor did not see the woman for six months. He met her on the street one day and asked her what she had decided. She said, “I did what you asked me to do. I went home and prayed. One day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about not getting into that church. I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!”
The people or church that shows favoritism is doing the same thing: they are acting as if Jesus himself is not welcomed in the church!
James said, “Listen, my dear brothers: 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?” James is not trying to imply that ONLY the poor are called by God. He is not saying that He likes poor people better than rich people. He is not saying that rich people CANNOT become children of God. James is speaking in generalities. Generally speaking those who have much, have a tendency to trust in what they have, rather than trust in the Lord. Those who have much, have a tendency to hoard what they have, while the poor are more likely to share what they have. The rich do not see their need of the Lord; the poor do.
Negatively: Reasons Favoritism is Wrong
James is not finished. He has some additional reasons for scorning an attitude of favoritism,
But you have insulted 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 slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? (6-7)
Practical Reasons James gives three practical reasons why showing favoritism doesn’t make sense.
First, the rich tend to be the ones who oppress. The rich tend to have power and they want to make sure that they retain that power. They often refuse to pay decent wages because they are too concerned about the profits of stock-holders. The poor people are often stepped on by the rich. The rich oppress because they CAN oppress. The sinful heart is given new freedom when power is placed in the hands of those who have much.
Second, the rich are the ones that drag you into court. In James’ day the rich would loan money at exorbitant rates and then when the poor could not keep up the payments they would be taken to court. The poor often lost their land in such situations. The rich often are behind lawsuits because it is a way to exert power . . . plus you need to have money to hire an attorney.
Third, the rich tend to be the ones that slander the name of Christ. Rich people tend to attack the name and people of God because, frankly, they don’t think they need the Lord. Some of the most blatant attacks on the Lord and His people come from those who have great riches (and therefore are seen as more significant and consequently are given a platform to speak authoritatively on almost anything). People who think they ARE God tend to look down on those who are not willing to bow before them.
Biblical Reasons James is not finished. The strongest arguments against favoritism are Biblical. James gives two reasons that favoritism and prejudice is contrary to the Bible.
First, Favoritism is a violation of the command to love. James said,
Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
James calls the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” the royal law. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment he said,
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Think about this for a second. Favoritism is often rooted in our desire to gain some benefit. In other words, we show favor to some people over others because of our selfishness. We treat even the favored people as objects for our gain. Usually we think these people are somehow going to enrich our lives. We hope they will contribute to our cause, improve our standing (isn’t that why we “name-drop”), and give us an advantage. So even the people we cater to are being treated in an un-loving way!
If we want to live in obedience to the Lord we must love God and we must love each other. This law was stated way back in the book of Leviticus. The Bible encourages us to live by what has been called the golden rule: “treat others in the way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:31 and other places) Think about it: Do you want people to be nice to you only to get something from you? Do you want people to dismiss you simply because of your age or skin color? Do you want people to draw conclusions about who you are based solely on the mistakes of your past? No. We want people to look beyond those surface issues and see the person we truly are.
Second, James tells us that favoritism is a sin just like more generally accepted sins.
if you show favoritism, 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, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
James is arguing that we can’t pick and choose where and how we will obey God. If we are going to serve and follow Him we must serve and follow Him in every area! Suppose you were washing windows on a skyscraper and you slipped and were dangling from a chain. How many links of that chain would need to break before you plummeted to your death?
James seems to sense that there are some who think their prejudice is really not that big of a deal. James says they are just as much a sinner in their actions as the one who murders or commits adultery. I don’t believe James is necessarily saying all sins are the same in severity. He is saying that all sins separate us from God.
Think about a window. It really doesn’t matter whether the window is shattered by a pebble or a rock. The damage from one will be greater than the other but in both cases the window is broken and needs to be replaced. James is pointing out that favoritism and prejudice are sins that sent Jesus to the cross!
An Action Plan
Speak and Act with Eternal Awareness
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!
James gives us a simple prescription: we are to live looking beyond the immediate results of our actions. We are to live our lives aware that how we treat others reveals the nature of our faith and reflects on the nature and character of our Lord.
James takes it even a step further. He reminds us that we will be judged for the way we treat others. Jesus warned us that the standard that we use against others is the standard that will be used against us (Matthew 7). If we extend mercy, we will receive mercy. If we extend forgiveness we will be granted forgiveness. If we are willing to look past the superficial things about people, others will do the same for us. The person who shows grace and mercy will triumph in the end.
As a church we must constantly ask ourselves an important question: Do we communicate to some people that they are less valuable than others? Do we show favoritism? Do we work hard to welcome everyone with the love of Christ? If we want to function as His body, we must learn to see people in the same way that Jesus did. He saw people as valuable because they were loved by God not because of the label they wore or the rank they possessed.
Stop Hiding Behind Your Circumstances
There are undoubtedly many who hide behind their circumstances,
- Those who feel they are “good enough”
- Those who feel they are accepted by God because of their reputation or standing in the church or community.
- Those who feel their past disqualifies them from the love of God
- Those who feel their circumstances prevent them from coming to the Lord for forgiveness and new life.
This passage reminds us that the arms of the Savior are open to all who will come to him . . . and our arms should be open in the same way. And even if we, as a church, or as individuals, have not communicated this effectively, the Lord’s arms ARE open. Instead of hiding, come out into the open and receive His forgiveness and new life.
Charlotte Elliott of Brighton, England as a young person lived a carefree life, gaining popularity as a portrait artist and writer of humorous verse. By the time she was thirty, however, her health began to fail rapidly, and soon she became a bedridden embittered invalid. Her health was broken, and her disability had hardened her. “If God loved me,” she muttered, “He would not have treated me this way.”
Hoping to help her, a Swiss minister, Dr. Cesar Malan, visited the Elliotts on May 9, 1822. Over dinner, Charlotte lost her temper and railed against God and family in a violent outburst. Her embarrassed family left the room, and Dr. Malan was left alone with her.
“You are tired of yourself, aren’t you?” he asked. “You are holding to your hate and anger because you have nothing else in the world to cling to. Consequently, you have become sour, bitter, and resentful.”
“What is your cure?” asked Charlotte.
“The faith you are trying to despise.”
As they talked, Charlotte softened. “If I wanted to become a Christian and to share the peace and joy you possess,” she finally asked, “what would I do?”
“You would give yourself to God just as you are now, with your fightings and fears, hates and loves, pride and shame.”
“I would come to God just as I am? Is that right?”
Charlotte did come just as she was, and her heart was changed that day. As time passed she found and claimed John 6:37 as a special verse for her: “… he who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”
At a later date, Charlotte Elliott, sat down and, while sitting there, wrote the words of what we know as a favorite hymn “Just As I Am”:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come!
And then the final stanza:
Just as I am—Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come!
The world in which we live is quick to label some people valuable and others less valuable. Everywhere you go there are attempts to rank people and establish a “pecking order”…it’s the way of the world. However, the way of God is different. There is only one way to Heaven and it is the same way for every person. It is through the work of Jesus Christ. And no matter what the world says about you . . . no matter what the cover of your life looks like . . . you can come to Him, just as you are.