I want you to imagine the perfect church. New people would come in and the church would be completely oblivious to their outward appearance or circumstances. I don’t mean we wouldn’t care if someone was in need. I mean there would be no judgment as to value, there would be zero partiality. The homeless person would be treated exactly the same as the millionaire. The person overflowing with leadership and ministry potential would be treated exactly the same as the person who was an emotional wreck and could only receive ministry. This is the biblical picture of what the church should like. And yet to varying degrees, we all struggle to achieve this ideal. Why is this? The problem is human nature. By choosing to fill the church with human beings, God has set us up for complicated problems. James was well aware of this. Remember that James was the head of the Jerusalem church, which had leadership role over all the Christian churches. James had to deal with a lot of church politics, navigating between the needs and prejudices of various groups. When James writes on this, he knows what he is talking about.
How We See the Rich and Poor
James goes right for the problem, describing what was taking place in the churches. Remember, there were no church buildings at that time, every congregation met in a person’s house, leaving room as a valuable commodity. When a rich person would come to the church, they would get one of the few precious good seats. The poor person would get to stand, or even sit on the ground at the feet of a person more important than them. Why would they do that? The church started mostly among poor people. So when a rich person came, it was big deal. It was a validation of their beliefs, as even a rich and educated person would hold the same beliefs. It was also a rare opportunity to greatly increase the resources available for ministry. Their natural excitement led them to give preferential treatment to the rich. What about today? We would of course welcome homeless people, unemployed, sick, disabled etc. But I will confess to you that we would be really excited if a few tithing millionaires came, if we had some people with natural leadership and ministry skills with the time, energy and motivation to use them. I don’t know of any pastor that would be any different. The poor are people who require ministry resources and the rich are people who provide ministry resources. We would never remove a person from a pew to make room for a rich person. Modern partiality is much more subtle. I read a book a number of years ago by a well known Christian pastor who argued that we should only keep as friends those who have the resources and skills to move our careers and aspirations forward. Think of how we speak of the rich, we describe them as being blessed by God. While we may not take this far, there are whole movements within Christianity that preach that God’s blessings are measured directly by the amount of money in the bank. What does that mean for what we think of the poor? We need to check our opinions when it comes to the rich and poor. How do we really feel?
How God Sees the Rich and Poor
Let me first of all say that God does not hate the rich. God has used rich people like Abraham in very powerful ways. And yet riches were always a danger. Even before Israel had a king, there was this warning: “The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:16–17 NIV) This is exactly what Solomon did. While his riches impressed the Israelites and the foreigners who visited him, that greed led Solomon away from God and into idolatry. At the same time, the Old Testament is filled with commands to take care of the poor. In Isaiah 1, God tells the Israelites that he hates their worship and the reason is they both abuse and neglect the poor. The message does not change in the New Testament, and if anything the emphasis on the poor is strengthened. A number of times, Jesus tells potential followers, especially when they are rich, to sell all they have and give it to the poor. Jesus taught this: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”” (Mark 10:23–27 NIV) This does not mean that the rich will not go to heaven, but they have added obstacles in putting their full trust in God. Think about Jesus. He was born, not into a rich family but into a working class family. There was not much of a middle class and so the family may not have been in abject poverty, but it was far from filthy rich. Whatever income Jesus had as a carpenter, by the time he went into ministry, he relied on other people’s charity. Jesus lived in poverty. I have heard people claim that Jesus was rich. Their reason? Not any Bible verse but the assumption that money is the sign of blessing obviously Jesus was blessed. Yes, Jesus was blessed and therefore we should rethink what blessing is. As Jesus himself said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 NIV) In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus taught: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:37–40 NIV) What we should see is that the poor have a special place in God’s heart. That does not mean that all poor are right with God and all rich are hated. Rather, God expects the rich and everyone who has the means, to care for the poor.
How We Should Live
So we have the following situation: People tend to be partial to the rich and yet God has a special love for the poor. What then should we do? James knows exactly what to do. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:8 NIV) It is interesting how the church has interpreted this. Love for others is an option that you can include in your religious life if you are particularly spiritual and have tendencies toward compassion. Christianity is about singing, learning the Bible, putting money in the plate, and if you want extra credit, you can choose to love your neighbour. If God really wanted us to love as a matter of priority, he would have made it clear. “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18 NIV) “Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19 NIV) “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:39 NIV) “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” (Romans 13:9 NIV) “The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”” (Galatians 5:14 NIV) So the Old Testament, two comments by Jesus and two comments by Paul, all agree that love for neighbor is essential and not just an option. James‘ argument is that even if you take pride in following all the commandments and yet if you break this commandment, you have broken them all. Loving our neighbor alone is called the royal law. What does this tell us about how we treat the rich our poor? Our primary purpose is not to fund the best programs or build the best buildings or hire the best staff. Our primary purpose is to love our neighbor, and as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is very likely that our neighbor is nothing like us. How we treat people who come into our church should be based on the question of how this will benefit our budget or improve our prestige in the community. The only question that should come to mind is: Are we loving our neighbor?
Just this week, I saw quotes by some important American politicians. President Obama stated “No one envies the rich.” Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Rominey stated that he was not worried about the poor because they already have a safety net. We can look at these politicians and conclude that they are out of touch. What about the church? Are we out of touch, both with reality and the heart of God? We are conditioned by cultural values and value riches over poverty, and often the rich over the poor. Brothers and sisters, this should not be so. It is not a sin to be rich, nor is it a virtue to be poor. But it is a sin to treat the rich better than we treat the poor. The royal law is love our neighbor as ourself. That should be the guide for all that we do.