My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet.”
James gives us a radical perspective on wealth and possessions.
He is appalled by the ways in which members of the church tended to favor the rich and powerful, inviting them to take the best seats, giving them positions of honor and respect. First, he is appalled because this favoritism flies in the face of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. How can they say they believe in Jesus, when they contradict his teachings? And then, on a practical level, he is appalled because the rich people they honor and respect are the same ones who are oppressing them. How can you honor the people who are responsible for your suffering?
“The love of money is the source of all kinds of evil, and in their desire to be rich some have wandered away from the faith” (II Timothy 6:10). We don’t just love money and want if for ourselves, we also tend to bow down to the people who have it in ways that are sometimes hard to understand.
In his column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert points to two headlines that ran side by side in the Saturday edition of the Times. One said, “U.S. Deficit Rises to $4.5 Trillion; Biggest Since ’45.” Right next to it, another headline said, “Bailout Helps Revive Banks, Bonuses.” How bizarre that in a time of widespread economic hardship, the richest people are getting richer, in part at least because everyone else is helping them get richer.
The bonuses at Goldman Sachs are planned to average $500,000. What does someone do to earn a half million dollar bonus? Apparently, that is the reward for taking great financial risks (with other people’s money). Meanwhile, the combination of those who are unemployed and those who are underemployed is pushing toward twenty percent. Herbert reports that two-thirds of the income gains between 2002 and 2007 went to the richest 1 percent of Americans.
Would any of this be any different if we took James’ criticism to heart and acted as if we really believed Jesus’ teachings? We might begin to ask different questions about where the money goes and who benefits. And we might begin to look for solutions that benefit the poor rather than the rich.
As James asks, “Do we really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”