If there is a favourite in your family and you’re not it, you know the pain of favouritism. Perhaps you watched your brother or sister or sometimes a cousin get special treatment. They got the praise, they were showered with love and gifts, and you are left to live in the shadows and enjoy whatever crumbs comes your way.
It is hard to know what is worse: your parents denying it, or your parents boasting about their favouritism. And the nail in the coffin is when the will is read out and you are not in it. And it is not that the favourite always wants that attention. Some revel in it to their shame, but others hate the attention, and were often left feeling guilty for what was the sin of the parents. Favouritism causes so much pain. We hate it and so does God.
I’ve sometimes wondered how James coped with having Jesus as his older half brother—that never-ending drip of, “Why can’t you be like your brother Jesus”—although I always thought he had the best come back: “But ma, give me a break! He is the sinless Son of God. How can I compete with that?” It is important for us to realize in this passage on favouritism, that Jesus is the glorious judge, James 2:1:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. (NIV)
Again James is clear as a bell. This is one of only two references to Jesus in the book of James. Jesus is the Lord of glory. James did not know that Jesus was the Lord of glory when he was crucified, but he knows now. We will all see his glory when he comes to judge the living and the dead. The point is that he is the glorious judge and not us. Jesus himself was known as one who showed no partiality, Mark 12:13-14:
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (NIV)
And these were his enemies! What Jesus said and did was not swayed by who people are. Truth is truth: it doesn’t bend for anyone. I love that about our Lord. But when humans make themselves judges of others, the terrible result that James warns about is favouritism: we discriminate among ourselves and become judges with evil thoughts. We take Jesus' role as judge. James condemns favouritism in the assembly of God. He condemns it when one person is favoured over another. The example here is giving special attention to the rich over the poor, but it could be any bias based on culture, race, or style. James 2:2-4:
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. 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,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (NIV)
James often speak about poverty. In James’ world, there was no middle class—you were either very rich or very poor. In this example, a man comes to church dressed to kill, loaded with bling—a gold ring and fine, literally, shining clothes. We are meant to compare the passing glory of the rich man with the eternal glory of our Lord Jesus. This rich man is given special attention: like he was the Lord of glory, he was given the good seat, the seat of honour. But that is not the problem. Our visitors must always get the best seats. That is what a good host does. It’s why we plan to have special parking for guests. It’s why we have a special welcome for newcomers and a 'new here' flag. But what James is criticizing is favouring the rich visitor over the poor visitor. The poor man is told to stand, or if they must sit, they can sit at my feet. This is rubbing the nose of the poor in their poverty. James 2:4:
Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (NIV)
So to show favouritism is to play God—and a lousy god at that. The bible was clear: judges were to show no partiality to either the poor or the rich. Leviticus 19:15:
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (NIV)
The law courts were not to be biased, and neither is our love. Truth was to stand, regardless of how much money the person had in the bank. Two reasons are given for not favouring these rich over the poor.
The first reason is the mercy of God. God chose from among the poor. When we favour one person over another, it undoes what God has done. It reverses God’s purposes, and that is why it is evil. James 2:5:
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? (NIV)
God is saying, “Don’t ignore those whom I have hand-picked”. God is saying, “The poor may have just joined your church, but I have loved them before I made this world”. Don’t misread them. They may be poor in this age, but in the age to come they are going to inherit the kingdom of God. They may not be able to offer you a job, but they are rulers in waiting. I have a kingdom prepared for them. Don’t misunderstand: it’s not that every poor person is going to heaven—it’s the poor who love him. The point here is not that God chooses the poor over the rich, but that God chooses from amongst the poor even though the world does not value them. God takes this very personally. When you insult those God has chosen, you insult God.
The church will never be neat. The church should never be neat. Whenever someone says, “MBM is a ‘cliquey’ church”, it’s like someone has plunged a knife in my heart. Because a cliquey church is a church where favouritism has taken root. When favouritism takes root in a church, it culls out the broken, the sick, the poor, and the awkward. A healthy church which doesn’t show favouritism has a wide diversity: a quota of rich and poor, healthy and sick, extroverts and introverts, single and married, divorce, separated or widowed, and with many cultures. That is a healthy church. Favouritism poisons diversity, leaving you with an anemic church where everyone is the same.
The second reason why favouring the rich is wrong is God’s view of the rich. It is like the church has lost all self-respect. James is confused. He sees them showing special treatment to those who are ripping them off. Are not these rich exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into courts? Are they not dragging the name of Jesus through the mud? This isn’t every rich person. In the Bible there are godly and ungodly rich and godly and ungodly poor. And yet it is true that it is usually the rich who take people to court. So the very ones who are exploiting them and slandering the name of Jesus are the ones who are given the best seats in the house.
So why would they do that? I tell you why? Being poor makes you desperate. The rich may have been their bosses or they could be their bosses. The rich have something to offer while the poor do not. When you are poor, it would be tempting to favour the rich man over a poor man because you want to feed your family, so the values of the world slowly become the values of the church. But their judgment is not God’s judgment.
Now neither is that rich boss to be treated badly. Reverse snobbery is not the answer. But the rich man needs to know that his money doesn’t buy access to God, and it won’t buy special honour in God’s family.
There was a time when you could buy special seating in church, and it was auctioned to the highest bidder, and only your family could sit there. I know a pastor who had a very, very wealthy person in his church who funded one-third of the church budget. There is no problem there. But this particular wealthy man thought that it entitled him to influence decisions in the church. The pastor had to be clear that his money didn’t buy him more influence. He had the same influence as the pensioner. So the wealthy man withdrew his $300,000 annual giving. The minister had to let three staff go. I was proud of him. That was the right decision. It is why I want you to pledge and why I don’t want to know what you pledge. I don’t trust myself.
When we don’t show favouritism as a church we are a beacon of light in a culture filled with bias where prejudice and preferential treatment is the norm. I remember one Indian person who said he became a Christian when he attended a church in North India filled with people from different castes. The lowest class of ‘untouchables’ where breaking bread in the Lord’s Supper with the Brahmin class. What a powerful statement! The reverse is the story of Mahatma Ghandi, who tells how he was interested in Christianity. One day he decided to go to church seeking salvation in South Africa, I think. The welcomers at the door told him that perhaps he would prefer to worship with his own people. Ghandi resolved never to return to church, because if Christianity has its own caste system, then there was no point in changing religions.
Favouritism is a serious sin under judgment. James is clear that favouritism makes a person a law breaker. The world solves the problem of bias by anti-discrimination laws and equal opportunity policies. God solves the problem by going to the heart and wanting us to love whoever God provides. The opposite of favouritism is keeping the royal law of God, which is to love your neighbour as yourself. James 2:8-9:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (NIV)
Favouritism is about not loving your neighbour, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, or male or female. We hate to be treated this way and God hates it too.
Here is the warning. Right now the danger is that as you hear this sermon, you are aware of your pain but not your guilt. You may be aware of how you have been ignored but not aware of your guilt in doing it. This is a word to be applied in two ways. It is a comfort to know that God sides with you when you have been ignored and sidelined. But it is a word of judgment to make sure you don’t show favouritism. When we play God and decide to be selective in our love, we are under sin, and under judgment. James makes the point that if your keep most of the law but break it at one point, you break it all. James 2:10:
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (NIV)
Don’t be satisfied with repenting in most areas. You can’t pick and choose which commandments you keep. You can’t pick and choose which type of person you will love. The royal law is clear: love your neighbour, those who are more cool or less cool, those who are more interesting or less interesting.
As is common with James, he gives the bottom line, that if you play judge, you will receive judgment. If you offer mercy, you will receive mercy. No mercy for judges. James 2:12-13:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)
God has grabbed our attention. What a test? Our words and our actions show whether mercy has shaped our life or not. God takes this very seriously. This is like the words of the Lord Jesus, that in the same way as you forgive that you will be forgiven, and if you don’t forgive your brother from the heart, your heavenly father will not forgive you. A truly forgiven person will forgive. A true believer who knows the mercy of God will show mercy.
But some important questions arise.
First, doesn’t God choose some? Romans 9:13-14:
Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (NIV)
Sounds like God has favourites, doesn’t it? So let us be clear. When God says that he does not show favouritism, he means that God’s people will come from every area of people. Christianity covers all classes, all cultures, all personality types, and all kinds of politics, those who are same sex attracted and those who are opposite sex attracted. So Peter says, Acts 10:34-35:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (NIV)
God still chooses, but he is not biased in his choosing. That is why when we have a peek into heaven, it is filled with those who come from every language, nation, and tribe. So if God has no favourites, we should do the same.
Should we not show special honour to those in certain roles? That is where Australia misapplies this verse. We hear, “no favouritism”, and we cut down the tall poppy. So when the Prime Minister attends the grand final, we boo him or her. But the Bible is clear that we are to honour those in authority. Citizens honour their leaders. Children honour their parents. Students honour their teachers. But that honour is tied to the role, not to the person. Each person is to be given equal love regardless of what they bring to the table.
It doesn’t mean we have to spend equal time with everyone. You are to love your family more than co-workers. It is ok to have special close friends. You are to do good to all people, but especially to the household of God. Jesus was selective. He spent special time with his leaders: the seventy-two, the twelve, and the inner three. He also gave his attention to the outcast like the Samaritan divorced woman at the well.
This week I spent time with staff. I also had dinner with seven people on Friday night who attend the service at Cumberland mental health hospital.
So back to what it means: who did God plant in the seat next to you? Don’t ignore them. You are to be known at work and school as the person who hangs out with every kind of person. You are to love and respect those over you, beside you, and those over whom you have been placed. You are to love those who are popular and those who are not.
Today I would like you to welcome those not from your clan, not part of your circle of friends. Every person who visits us is asking one question: “Do you really want me here?” And know that you are the face of God. As God’s ambassador, what will be your message? How will you represent God? Will you offer that inclusive smile which is on the face of God and shows mercy on all?
I remember the first time I preached this passage at MBM. Joe, one of our brothers who died last year, came up to me after the sermon. He had just become a Christian. He said, “Ray, I really felt that the Lord was convicting me of this word”. I said “Oh, that is beautiful, Joe.” He said, “Yes, Frank asked me to go motorbike riding this afternoon after church, and I said, ‘yes’, and I meant it .” It was a big break through for Joe, but I didn’t get it. I said, “Joe, I don’t understand.” He said, “Ray, Frank rides Hondas, but I’m a Harley rider, and Harley riders don’t ride with Japanese bikes. It is embarrassing.” What a great application of this passage!
Who is God telling you today to start including and to stop ignoring?