Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?
As I have contemplated this text over the past couple weeks, two incidents from our life here in Brazil – both involving my oldest son Michael – were brought to my remembrance. I had never connected them until now.
The first happened back when Michael was small, about six or seven years old. We were hosting a missions team from one of our supporting churches in Upstate New York. At the time, we lived in the interior of the state of Ceará, an eight-hour trip from the capital city of Fortaleza. Missions teams would usually arrive in Fortaleza, take a bus to our city, then return once their ministry with us was complete.
On this particular day we were accompanying the team back to Fortaleza, and the bus stopped for a meal at a restaurant about half way to our destination. Michael was with us, dressed in shorts, a tank-top, and sandals.
As I was talking to one of the waiters, one of the team members came up to me and said, in an urgent tone, “Andrew, something’s going on with Michael!”
I turned around to see that one of the restaurant staff had grabbed my son by the arm and was escorting – more like dragging – him towards the door. Immediately I knew what was happening. Michael was several shades darker than all the other members of our group, and was dressed like any Brazilian street urchin would be dressed – including the ones that hang around outside restaurants begging for handouts. Based on skin color and dress, the employee assumed that Michael was one of the beggars who had found his way inside.
I quickly stepped in and disabused the waiter of his false assumption, and that was the end of it. But it was a stark lesson in how we are all judged by our appearneces.
Fast forward a decade…
Michael is now in his late teens, towering over his Dad, and with a keen interest in astronomy. Not too long ago we heard that the Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes would be participating in an event here in São Luís. Also at the event were a number of dignitaries and big-wigs, including the governor of our state.
Of course, the opportunity to meet a real, live astronaut was something Michael could not pass up. Not wanting to feel out of place at the event, we dressed up in jackets and neckties before driving to the conference center.
At the door a young lady was checking people’s credentials as they came in. Our ticket had been secured online, and I had the digital voucher saved on my cell phone. But before I could show it to her, the attendant looked us over, then came close to me and whispered “Are you with the VIPs?”
Were I not an honest man, her assumptions based on the way Michael and I were dressed could have gotten me at least temporary access to the movers and shakers of Brazil.
The point of all this…
Since the first verses of the first chapter of his epistle, James has been challenging our way of thinking on a number of different topics. His goal is to get us to reject worldly thought patterns and train our minds to think biblically. For the last several verses, he has been urging us to reject the kind of assumptions that led to the kinds of errors in judgement mentioned above.
In last week’s devotional, which covered James 2:5-6a, we saw how poverty is not a sign of lesser worth. Today, James flips the coin to show is that riches are not a sign of greater virtue.
To make his point, he draws his first-century readers’ attention to something they can readily observe. He notes that the people who were involved in persecuting believers and in blaspheming the name of Christ were almost universally among the wealthy class. In the first century – and in most centuries since then – it was those in power who were most threatened by the existence of the Church.
What James is saying to them is this: “You all treat rich people that come into your church as something special, but it’s rich people who persecute you and drag Jesus’ name through the mud. Stop believing that people don’t deserve respect just because they happen to be low on cash, and stop believing people do deserve respect just because they are rolling in the dough.”
A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE
At this point, it is very important for us to remember something that was said a couple weeks ago. In James 2:1, at the very beginning of this whole discourse, he writes My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. It is important to remember this, because if we separate the last couple verses from this context we can come away with a “poor people good, rich people bad” idea. That that is not what this text is telling us.
Bear in mind that in chapter one James writes to the “rich brother” (the word “brother” is implied in the original). Scripture and historical record attest to the fact that many people of means made up the early church. Clearly James is not trying to vilify them, or cast aspersions on their salvation.
Rather, James’s main point is stated in verse 1: partiality in the family of God is a sin. It could be partiality towards the rich – which is the example he uses. It could also be partiality towards the poor – which is something Scripture also warns us against. And while poverty is, in and of itself, not an indication of lack of virtue, it can be the consequence of laziness, which is a sin that must be dealt with.
The sin that James is dealing with in this passage is neither wealth nor poverty. Both may or may not be the result of sinful practice. James is warning us against partiality. That sin must be snuffed out of the life of the church at all costs.
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