Life: The pressure of partiality

 • The Bible Studies for Life lesson for Sept. 15 focuses on James 2:1-13.

It’s easy to welcome people who look like us. We know what to do when a husband and wife walk into church with their two kids for the first time. We have the perfect Sunday school class for each member of the family. We have a full calendar of fellowship opportunities ready to go—and in the back of our minds, there’s a list of a few volunteer spots that need to be filled.

It’s harder to welcome people who don’t fit the mold. Can we find the place for the single mom with three kids with three different last names? Where do we put the 20-something single looking for his place in our family-centered church? When a family walks in whose faces match our community but not our congregation, how welcome do they feel?

Are all welcome?

What do you do with the person who talks a little too much and a little too loud? How about the one who doesn’t know when to stand or when to sit and hasn’t learned all the rules of our church culture? We say all are welcome. Do we mean it?

Christianity always has been a religion that draws the least. The second-century pagan philosopher Celsus derisively called Christianity a religion of “slaves, women and children”—the groups that held the least status in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus said it is the meek of this world who will inherit the earth, that we must come to him as children and it is the least who will be the greatest in his kingdom.

If Jesus truly is king, we must not judge on the basis of outward appearance. Rather, we welcome all people as if they were created by and beloved by God—because they are.

How quickly we forget. James’ first readers did. Even though they were oppressed by the rich and powerful, it seems these congregations rushed to welcome high-status visitors while neglecting the poor.

Star power

Can you see the scene James paints? The rich man with his decorated robe and gold ring is escorted to a place of honor, while the poor man in his dirty clothing is brushed aside to a seat on the floor. It’s ironic, considering it was the rich who were taking advantage of their position to oppress Christians, even dragging them into court (James 2:6).

It’s like this. Imagine that a well-known politician makes an appearance on Sunday morning at your church. His flag pin is on the lapel of his tailored suit. An entourage of aides, security and media travels behind him. Deep down, you know he’s there for the photo opportunity—and yet, the man’s a star. It’s hard not to be drawn in by his charisma.

At the same time, another man walks up from the bus stop across the street. His dirty clothes and worn shoes have seen better days. His sun-darkened skin and calloused hands suggest he’s a day laborer. Perhaps he’s one of the men who gathers on a street corner a few blocks away every morning hoping for work.

Who gets welcomed and ushered to a seat? Who is left to find a place alone in the balcony?

Don't share world's view of status

The church should not share the world’s view of status. Greatness in the kingdom isn’t measured by money in the bank, votes in your pocket, Twitter followers, Facebook friends or being a reality show star. Christ chose those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and great in the kingdom. As his followers, we don’t play by the world’s rules. We are governed by the law of love (James 2:8).

That law of love was modeled for us by our king. Our king, who left heaven to be born in a stable, is the one who traded the glory of heaven for Calvary’s cross. He ate with sinners, touched lepers, welcomed children and let a repentant prostitute wash his feet with her hair. Favoritism has no place in his kingdom. In the congregation of saints there is no male or female, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile. Instead we are all called by one name—redeemed.

Make no mistake; favoritism is sin. Whether it’s the overt sin of racism, the seduction of classism or the subtle danger of preferring those who are easy to love, when we honor one person at another’s expense, it is sin.

Yet there is a cure for sin—mercy. God has shown us mercy. He pardoned us when we least deserved it. As his children, we welcome others to come to him and receive that same mercy. We honor those who have done nothing to deserve it. We welcome those who seem to have nothing to contribute. We open our arms to those who desperately need a community and a place to call home. We reject favoritism and display mercy. For we know this one thing: In the end, mercy triumphs.

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