The human ability to pick and choose what we pay attention to is astonishing. In terms of the never-ending torrent of sensory input that washes over us each day, it’s a good thing that we have this selectivity. Sometimes it keeps us from being overwhelmed and distracted, and other times it makes us capable of great concentration and dedication. I remember when I was in junior high being amazed by my twin brother’s amazing ability to play war board games literally all day without once taking a break to eat or even drink.
But the selectivity that may be useful in sensory terms is dangerous when applied to our sense of sin. We all have the tendency to focus on certain sins and not others. As taboo as it seems to be to preach on divorce, when was the last time you heard a sermon or teaching on gluttony?
James teaches us this morning to not be partial: not in the sins we choose to focus on and not to the people God puts in our lives. One of the groups of people it’s sometimes easy to be partial to is the rich. Now it’s fairly easy to see why one would be tempted to be partial to the rich: the rich have power. The rich people tend to rule things, whether officially or unofficially. It’s no coincidence that the average net worth of members of the House of Representatives is reputedly $2.4 million, and among senators, $8.9 million.
Even in churches there’s a temptation to pay more attention and respect to the rich. After all, if you want a new building or organ, it’s probably the rich people in the congregation who will or will not make it happen. Culturally, I think many of us are prone to believe that a well-dressed man with a nice car is more likely to somehow be a fine Christian than someone with dirty jeans and a beater car. Actually, this is changing, because in many churches coming to church in jeans and a T-shirt is almost trendy. But at least you’d better have some wheels.
James is right to alert us to the dangers of favoring those who are rich in this world. But we’d better be prepared to consider this seriously – because the rich are probably more prevalent in the American church than in any church before. And riches are very subtly seductive. Now attacking the rich is fashionable in some circles, and this, too, is a mistake. Because some of the cultural attacks on the rich are made most forcibly by other rich people for political reasons, I think some of the awareness the church has of favoring the rich gets muted
But the problem with partiality cuts the other way too: it’s entirely possible to show favoritism to the poor. It’s true that James teaches that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him (verse 5.) But notice how James qualifies who the blessed poor are? The poor God has chosen are not poor people generally but those who are rich in faith and who love Him. To exalt poverty to a virtue would be as ungodly as exalting richness to a virtue.
Some have mistakenly taken the teaching of James, and Jesus as well, to mean that we should therefore be partial to the poor. But this would be in violation of Leviticus 19:15 which says, “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty.” It’s true that the poor are probably more likely to respond with spiritual poverty or humility before God. And it’s true that the poor should receive a disproportionate share of the physical care that churches should be providing to people, precisely because they are more needy. But God is not compelled to bless the poor who are poor because of a godless, sinful lifestyle that they refuse to change.
James’ point, then, is to avoid partiality based on human differences and to learn to judge by God’s standards. True impartiality is based on learning to be partial towards godliness and not towards ungodliness, to be partial to God’s perspective so that we may impartially love all men. For this reason, we must avoid a second kind of sinful partiality, and that is choosing only to look at certain sins. James says that showing partiality toward the rich is a sin, and therefore we must consider it a sin, as much as we would consider any sexual sin a sin or stealing or murder a sin.
All sin is a violation of God’s holy Law, which is the expression of His holy character. If you have shown partiality toward the rich, then you have broken the Law just as much as if you’ve murdered (this doesn’t imply that they are equivalent in every way, of course.) The one who said “Thou shalt do no murder” has also said, “Thou shalt show no partiality.” Therefore, “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (verse 12.)
Finally, there is one way in which we should be selective in what we pay attention to: we should pay special attention to the sins that God is personally asking us to pay attention to. There are so many possible kinds of sins we could choose to examine ourselves on, but like the majority of sensory stimulation, it might not be personally meaningful for me. I may safely (if I’m doing it superficially) meditate on murder, gluttony, or kidnapping. But God is asking each of us to pay attention to the sins that we are engaged in.
The only way to be in a good position to help “check up” on each other and deal with the mote of sin in God’s community is for each of us to first examine and take out the log of sin in his own life. And if we have faithfully examined our own sins, then we will also avoid the sin of partiality.
Prayer: Father, I thank you that you have chosen the poor in spirit to be rich in faith and heirs of Your everlasting kingdom. As there is no partiality with You, may there be no partiality with me. Even if it means that I am not as rewarded in this life, help me to show no favoritism toward those who are rich, that in all things I may be made like You.
Resolution and Point of Meditation: Meditate on the ways in which you may be showing partiality. Take one of these ways of showing partiality and reflect on why it is that you show partiality. Conclude by resolving to not show such partiality in the future.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson