Pentecost 16: 9 September James 2:1-10 (11-13) 14-17
As the wisdom of chapter 1 is about making sure that faith is not just religion, but actually affects the way we live, so today's passage challenges the hearers to make the connections. How can you hold faith in Christ and behave in a way which discriminates against people? The answer is: quite easily! It happens all the time. This is why we need this kind of wisdom instruction to bring the obvious connections to the surface, because for many they are not obvious at all. The solution is not to set up a complex array of rules for life as a kind of check, but to learn to engage the process of making connections, so that our behaviour becomes an outcome of our faith and is neither independent nor something we tag on as 'required' or 'good'.
The concrete illustration of showing more attention and favour to a rich person is straightforward and hardly needs explanation. The point is clear! People may access its intent by imagining what happens when people come to church or perhaps reflect on their own experience. Isn't it interesting that first century attention was also directed to how we welcome people when they join our gatherings! If we dig a little deeper we will find a layer beyond our comfortable moral outrage at such discrimination. It is important to do so, because otherwise this passage tends to comfort us by talking about 'them', those people who discriminate. People will have their stories to tell - painful stories, not just about clothes, but about colour, culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc
Western societies major on appearance. We also major on rewarding the rich. The writer of James is sufficiently in touch with Christian origins still to speak from the perspective of the poor and vulnerable. Some Christian groups, including those who looked back to James as a mentor, used the designation, 'The Poor', to describe themselves (the Ebionite Christians). The original core group was poor and many of them chose a poverty lifestyle of travel with little means, believing this was Christ's instruction for them. This set their perspective as one of solidarity with those at the bottom of the economic heap. Thus the author speaks about these rich people who (or whose associates) drag them to courts and slander Christ.
The hearers might identify with such dangers, but clearly they had accommodated themselves so much to their context that they were taking on its values. The result was crass discrimination. Our confusion with our contexts is so thorough, that it is only the crass cases of discrimination that we tend to recognise. All the while our context, which will portray itself as willed and blessed by God, depends for its wealth to a large degree on exploitation of the weak and the poor.
Dirty clothes are a symbol. We don't want dirt. Dirty people don't belong. This is a version of a purity code. Dirt is what does not belong. People sometimes speak about being treated like dirt. The striking thing about Jesus was that he refused to treat anyone like dirt. In this he expounded what was already in the heart of the Law, as the quotation from Leviticus 19:18 in 2:8 illustrates. The problem was that the biblical tradition also enabled some to use its laws to discriminate against others; and this is no different when we add the New Testament tradition. It becomes a matter of orientation or focus. The author assumes that people matter most in God's eyes and should matter most to us. That defines our purity laws, so that dirt is never people; it is what dehumanises and abuses people.
The little argument about contravening God's law by contravening any part of it, might seem like trivia. It is often treated that way. It then becomes a vehicle for judgement of others or oneself. That is not really its point here. It was probably a favourite argument at the time. Our author is using it to say that if you neglect loving your fellow human being (originally fellow Israelite), then you have contravened God's law - for all intents and purposes: the lot. This is because he stands in a tradition which sees it all summarised in that one law, as Matt 7:12 suggests (there are a number of other echoes of the sermon on the mount in the material which follows in James).
Like Matthew, James reinforces the call to compassion with the threat of judgement. Love! - or else God will condemn you! There are problems when we try to motivate people to love by threatening them with the withdrawal of love. At worst we are saying: God will treat you like dirt unless you love people and don't treat them like dirt. It is a contradiction, because it ends up making God into the very kind of model which is not to be emulated! People do tend to take after God, naturally, and where everlasting judgement is espoused like this, you can be sure that Christians will express it in their lives. Our history is full of evidence for this nexus. So one has to treat this theme in James (and Matthew) critically.
The final excerpt belongs to the famous statements in James about faith and works, which continue to the ends of the chapter. Our segment is a very down to earth challenge, which, like the challenge about how you treat people who join your assembly, is very straightforward. The theme is similar: making connections between the values implicit in our faith and the attitudes and behaviour which needs to flow from them. Sometimes the problem is at the faith end: a kind of religious adulation of Jesus has replaced the Jesus who embodied the hope of good news for the poor and hungry and the creation of a community of love. Where the latter is central, then the attitudes and actions have a chance of taking similar shape. Where the former is central, then considerations such a social justice are simply 'add-ons' and extras which people may never get around to installing.
But even when one has a more appropriate image of Jesus, it does not necessarily follow that attitudes and actions will follow. Sometimes this image of Jesus is expounded in a manner which comes close to intellectual self-indulgence: getting it right, especially over against those who have been getting it wrong. It belongs to human nature that we can expend enormous effort carefully understanding what a rose is without taking the time to see, smell and enjoy its beauty. Social justice christology is 'in' at the moment - but like the term, social justice, itself, can die of its popularity as our fascination with it inoculates us against engagement and the vision dies to become just an idea and a good concept to include in our strategic plans and visions..
Gospel: Pentecost 16: 9 September Mark 7:24-37
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