Showing Favoritism
by Jack Wald | February 19th, 2012

James 2:1-7

In our series of sermons from James, we come to a passage that talks about showing favoritism. (James 2:1–7)
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The Jewish followers of Jesus were having a problem with favoritism. In their meeting places there were not enough chairs for everyone to sit on, so when someone wealthy came in they made sure that person had a chair or couch with cushions to sit on. But if someone came in who was poor, they were told to sit on the floor.

Why did they do this? Why did they show such honor to the wealthy person and such disrespect for the poor person?

It takes money to operate a church and everyone does not contribute an equal amount. If the annual budget for the church was 100 shekels and there were 100 people in the church, the expectation was not that each person would contribute 1 shekel. Some could give only a small part of a shekel but there were those who were rich enough to contribute 100 shekels or even more. So when someone stepped into the church who could contribute most of the budget needed for the church, the instinct was to show honor and respect to that person so they would feel inclined to be generous. If the poor person did not give because he had not been honored, it was no big deal. The church would do fine without his giving.

People honored the rich not only because of what they could give to the church, but also because of how they could help with jobs and loans and other financial needs. The rich were large landowners so if people were nice to the rich, perhaps they would get more favorable treatment. So the wealthy were shown great respect at the expense of the poor.

The fall before I came to Morocco I went to a Christian conference sponsored by Chuck Colson, a leading Christian spokesman in the US. The conference was in Colorado Springs at an expensive hotel but since I was exploring what I would do after selling my business, I thought this might be a good place to meet people and see if God directed me to any of the ministries represented there. Annie and I had supported Chuck Colson’s organization for over twenty years with monthly contributions, I admired Colson’s sharp thinking and analysis, and I was excited about the stimulation of the speakers and discussion at the conference. Plus I wondered if I would find the next step for me in my life. So I went with a lot of anticipation.

But the conference was a terribly disillusioning experience for me.  The conference was promoted as a place to have a discussion about how Christians would engage with the 21st century but it turned out the hidden agenda was to raise funds and for the most part, the speakers had nothing new to say. This is not how it was promoted, but this is what it was. I wrote a letter critiquing the conference and this is part of what I wrote:
As long as I’m talking about what bothered me, what world view is being carried into the new millennium when those with a lot of money to give and those who have achieved a measure of fame are reserved seats at the front of the auditorium? Are they more deserving of those seats than the other attendees of the conference? As Larry Norman pointed out in one of his songs, “All men are equal. All men are brothers. But why are some more equal than others?” This may have been important for fund raising, but it sends a poor message to other participants.

This was my own experience of walking into the room and since I did not have a gold ring bank account, I was pushed to the side. The result was that I felt alienated, disrespected, and dishonored

Do you think we show favoritism here at RIC? Do we pay more attention to some people than others? Is everyone welcome here or are some people more welcome than others? Do we pay more attention to white Americans and Europeans than we do to black Africans? Do we pay more attention to those who can afford to give more to the church than we do to those who have limited financial resources?

It is interesting to me that when I have asked students at the Cité about RIC they tell me RIC is a white church. Why do students say this? I am white, most of the RIC board is white. When I am not here, the people who preach in my absence are mostly white.

But when I ask people at the Western embassies, they say RIC is a black church. Over half of the congregation on any given Sunday is black. On most Sundays, worship is led by blacks.

Why is it that no one wants to say RIC is their church? Maybe the whites and blacks cancel each other out and RIC is the church of Asians and Latin Americans and the islands of the Atlantic and Pacific.

Let me give you two examples of behavior at RIC that is not favoritism, then talk about what favoritism is, and finally we will look at why James was so opposed to favoritism.

Seeking out people who are like you is not favoritism. If you are sitting in your chair on Sunday when new people are welcomed and you hear someone say they are from your country, it is natural that you would want to meet them and find out specifically which city they came from. When you come to RIC, it is natural that you make friends and hang out with people who come from your country or who share much of your culture.

When someone comes from the US I am curious to know what part of the US they come from and if we, perhaps, know some people in common. When someone comes to the church who is approximately my age, I am interested in talking with them. It is natural to want to meet people who share my nationality, my culture and my age.

I know that when young men and women in their twenties come to RIC, they prefer going to the café after church with people their own age than coming with me to the Adult Sunday School which is composed of those who are, for the most part, people twice their age. They are not showing favoritism; they are simply moving to their comfort zone. We are comfortable seeking out those who are like us, who understand us. This is normal. This is natural. This is not favoritism.

But let me say that if you come to RIC with its more than 30 nationalities and more than 40 denominations and do not make an effort to establish friendships with people from other countries and backgrounds, you are missing out on one of the great blessings of this church.

I have grown so much by exposure to the wide variety of people who have come to RIC. I have learned that there is more than an American view of world events. I had great, energetic discussions with a man from India who defended Mugabe in Zimbabwe. It was so clear to me that Mugabe was a villain that I was shocked to hear a different perspective. I didn’t change my point of view, but my understanding was deepened and broadened by our discussions.

I have learned to be much more sensitive to cultural differences. We had a man from the southern tip of India who came to our home for a meal. We sat down at a table with silverware and plates and after I said grace, he excused himself, got up and went to the bathroom to wash his hands. When he came back he began to eat with his fingers. He had never before used silverware and told me that from where he came, they would put a banana leaf on the ground, put the food on that and then share the meal. The next time he came to our house we did not put out our silverware and we all ate with our fingers. That was a great learning experience for me and I loved talking with him and learning about life where he came from.

I have learned a lot about the culture of different African countries: how dating and engagement and marriage is handled, how families and clans deal with death, how the church and church pastors are viewed. As I talk about these cultural views, I am forced to think more clearly about the values that surround cultural practices in my own country. I am a far richer person because of these friendships.

So once again, although it is normal and natural to make friends with people at RIC from your own or a similar culture, you will miss out on a great blessing if you do not extend yourself to make friends with people from other cultures.

When we have a potluck or when we have a coffee-hour, as we will today after church, make an effort to talk with people who are from a different part of the world. Take advantage of opportunities to broaden your horizon of friendships.

A second example of what is not favoritism at RIC is our policy toward illegal migrants in Morocco.

It is our church policy not to allow illegal migrants to sing in the choir or usher or in any other way serve in the church. Let me explain why this is our policy.

It is our judgment that the illegal movement across borders, in particular, from sub-Saharan Africa to Spain, is a spiritually destructive journey. I have twelve years of experience with illegal migrants and have learned a lot from my interactions. I have seen good men and women set out on their journey, having gathered the money to travel with good intentions to find a job that will allow them to send money back home to their family. They make the treacherous trek across the Sahara Desert and into Oujda in Morocco. They arrive in Rabat without their passport and without money. The 1,000 Euros they thought would get them to Spain has been taken by smugglers and robbers and now another 1,200 Euros has to be raised to be smuggled into Spain.

How do you get this money? You call back home and try to get people you know to send more money. You call people you know who are already in Europe and ask them for some money. It is a desperate struggle and so there is, for most migrants, a drift into illegal activities.

Women who start out with the intention of working as maids, are forced to prostitute themselves to get across the desert and then, often, their way to Europe is paid for by gangs who will put the woman into prostitution and profit from her.

I knew a man who made it to Rabat and then was here for a long time, trying to gather the money he needed to make it to Spain. He was a regular attender at our prayer meetings and at church. He became sick and I helped him get into a hospital. When I went to collect his clothes and passport, I discovered he was earning money by finding men who wanted a prostitute and bringing them to a pimp who had several women staying in his apartment. He had become, what they call in Tanzania, a fly-catcher.

If you had asked him when he left Nigeria if he would ever do this, he would have said absolutely not, but as he made his way, he took small step after small step that led him to doing what he never thought he would do. The journey pulls people further and further away from obedience to God.

Part of the destructiveness of this journey is encouraged by a popular teaching in some churches in Africa that says it is ok to deceive people to get to where God is calling you to go. The Biblical basis for this is in Exodus when Moses and Israel left Egypt, telling the Pharaoh they were going for just a few days and took the gold and silver of Egypt with them.

This is terrible exegesis but as a consequence I have experienced deceit after deceit after deceit over the years. When I have helped someone, the weeks following brought a string of people to me with a story similar to the story of the person I helped.

At the end of January, a young Nigerian who was part of our church, an orphan without brothers or sisters, flew to the US to begin a new life in a refugee program. We had prayed for him and were delighted that he was able to get this opportunity. Two Sundays after he left  a man came up to me and said I should help him because he was an orphan. Was he telling me the truth? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Over the years we have experienced illegal migrants who used their position of serving the church as a means of raising funds to go illegally to Europe. We do not believe this is right and we do not intend to support this illegal move.

For this reason we do not allow illegal migrants to serve in the church. They are welcome to worship with us but are not permitted to serve.

This is not an example of favoritism. This is a matter of making a judgment about the wisdom of choices that are being made and deciding not to support those choices.

Let me say, after all of this, that I have known several illegal migrants for whom I have had great respect. I know they are in a very difficult position and I can’t say what I would have done if I were in their situation. So while we have a church policy about illegal migrants serving in the church, we do not make a judgment that illegal migrants are all bad people. There are many good people stuck in this situation. We are not trying to condemn illegal migrants, but to encourage them to make the wise choice of going back home and seeking legal ways to advance themselves.

I have shared two examples of what is not favoritism, what is favoritism?

Favoritism is showing preference to someone because of what you think they can do for you. Favoritism uses someone to benefit yourself.

A church can show favoritism by paying special attention to someone who is wealthy so they will be generous in giving to the church. A businessman who comes to church so he can make contacts for his business shows favoritism.  A poor person who comes into church and makes it a goal to get to know someone wealthy so he can get help with rent and food shows favoritism.

It is pretty clear why favoritism is not good. When you show favoritism you are not primarily interested in the person. The person you are favoring is not important to you. What is important is what they have to offer you.

This is a big problem for those who are wealthy or famous. When you have wealth and/or fame, one of the struggles is to know if people really like you or are just attracted to your wealth and fame. Wealthy and famous people want to be liked for who they are, not for what they have.

Showing favoritism dehumanizes those who are shown favor and dehumanizes those who are rejected.

Why does James tell us we should not show favoritism?
if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

Here we come to the heart of this passage.
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

The poor who were being shown disrespect in the church were people God had chosen. The pre-existing creator God sent Jesus to die for these people who were being dishonored by the church. God thought they were worthy enough to sacrifice to bring them into his kingdom. So what right do we have to choose against those whom God has chosen? Are we so arrogant that we can reject God’s choices? Are we so foolish that we would want to reject God’s choices? Do we not realize that we will be side-by-side with these people in heaven when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord?

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:15–16 (The Message)
He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.
Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look.

When someone steps into RIC, what do you see? You pay attention to the color of their skin, to the clothes they wear. You listen to them when they say what country they come from and you assign them a category. Student, teacher, diplomat, businessman, Asian, Westerner, African. You think you know who they are. But you do not have a clue about who they really are. You know very little that is ultimately important about them. You are paying attention to the things that will pass away. You are viewing them with the world’s eyes and what James is telling us to do is to view each other with God’s eyes. Who does God think they are? That is what we need to know.

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

When you make a judgment about someone based on how attractive they are or how well they dress, you are missing what is most important. You are looking only at the wrapping of the package, not at the present that is inside. If you look only at the exterior, you may miss a great treasure.

This is true for all of us in church, but if I can digress for a moment, this is also true for those of you who are single and at least curious about who you might one day marry.  Sometimes a beautiful exterior contains a beautiful soul, but that is not always the case and if you marry for the external but do not pay attention to the internal, you can have a miserable marriage. Pay attention to the beauty that is inside; that is far more important if you are interested in having a life-long partner.

I hope you see that not showing favoritism is about much more than simply being even-handed with the rich and the poor. What James is talking about is viewing people as sons and daughters of God.

Becky Pippert wrote a wonderful book titled, Out of the Saltshaker & into the World and in this book she tells the story of a student she met when she was doing campus ministry in Portland, Oregon.
Bill was brilliant, and looked like he was always pondering the esoteric. He hair was always mussy, and in the entire time I knew him, I never once saw him wear a pair of shoes. Rain, sleet, or snow, Bill was always barefoot. While he was attending college, he had become a Christian. At this time, a well-dressed, middle-class church across the street from the campus wanted to develop more of a ministry to the students. They were not sure how to go about it, but they tried to make them feel welcome. One day Bill decided to worship there. He walked into this church wearing his blue jeans, T-shirt and of course no shoes. People looked a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. So Bill began walking down the aisle looking for a seat. The church was quite crowded that Sunday, so as he got down to the front pew and realized there were no seats, he just squatted on the carpet—perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, but perhaps unnerving for a church congregation. The tension in the air became so thick one could slice it.

Suddenly an elderly man began walking down the aisle toward the boy. Was he going to scold Bill? My friends who saw him approaching said they thought, “You can’t blame him. He’d never guess Bill is a Christian. And his world is too distant from Bill’s to understand. You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do.”

As the man kept walking slowly down the aisle, the church became utterly silent, all eyes were focused on him, you could not hear anyone breathe. When the man reached Bill, with some difficulty he lowered himself and sat down next to him on the carpet. He and Bill worshipped together on the floor that Sunday. I was told there was not a dry eye in the congregation.

This is what James is talking about. The old man did not see a young hippy, not appropriately dressed for church, he saw a brother in Christ whom God had chosen.

This is what C. S. Lewis wrote about. The old man did not see an ordinary person, a mere mortal. He saw an eternal son of God and he honored him by sitting beside him.

How would I like you to apply this passage of James to your life?

I am not asking you to abandon those who are from your culture and background. I have discovered over the years that the best way to minister to the diverse parts of our congregation is to focus on the different parts. We gather together to worship on Sunday, but the small groups and teaching times during the week work best when they are designed for a specific part of the church.

We need to be supported in our Christian life and that is best done by people who are like us. So make strong friendships with people who can encourage you. Take advantage of the different opportunities for teaching and small groups that exist. If there is not a small group you can meet with, form your own.

But in addition, pray that God will lead you to someone outside of your world and make a friend of that person. Meet to talk at a café. Share a meal together. Talk about life in your different countries. Learn to eat different foods. Learn about how a different culture deals with life. Get beyond the superficial exterior and learn how this person is being formed by God for an eternal existence.

The two of you have a lot in common. Both of you have been chosen by God to spend eternity in his kingdom.