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,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James’ epistle gives voice to Jesus’ actions throughout the gospels. Jesus clearly identifies with the poor and oppressed around him throughout his ministry and challenges religious leaders to their disassociation with those subjugated by society. In the beginning of his wisdom-sharing letter, the author warns about anger against others. Following a message of listening, James espouses commands of loving one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self. But how often do we have the courage to do this?
As you look around your congregation on Sunday morning, how many poor and oppressed people to you see? If you are like me, you see others dressed in fine clothing, women or men wearing expensive rings on their hand. And when the offering plate passes people nonchalantly toss perfectly penned checks into the plate or basket. As one proclaims the lectionary passage from a pulpit, we nod our heads knowing our contributions go towards food pantries and ESL classes hosted by the congregation; however, there are no poor people in our midst. If someone from a lower socio-economic class arrived one Sunday morning, they would feel either intimidated in the company of strangers and feel unwelcomed by the questioning glares from other church members.
For as much as we proclaim to be about giving, sharing, loving and looking out for the other, our congregations do not easily welcome the stranger from lower classes. Therefore, our objectification grows and interactions limited to handouts on street corners rather than a coming alongside to lend a hand out of oppressive situations.
By entreating to loving the other, James asks us to establish a lack of favoritism that leads to highlighting our faulty treatments and, in turn, causes deep shame. Without the courage to change our interactions with others in our social and economic society by providing dignity of association, we persist to give from afar, fearing the transformation we may experience by getting to know someone very different (and yet strangely similar) to ourselves. We fear to address the other because it will reveal the shame within us that makes us human.
But shame is something we all share, despite the size of our paycheck or lack thereof: whether it is shame of promising to care for the poor but never knowing the name or background of the one we give to or the shame of rejection from society based on poverty. By embracing the shame of fear to associate with one with another, we learn more about our true self, we learn to love our whole self (shame and all) and thus learn to truly love another.