Second Reading: James 2:1-5

Social Prejudice

Popular Translation

1 Brothers and Sisters. Don't show anyone favors. Instead, be true to your faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. He is truly glorious. 2 Imagine a man who wore gold rings and fine clothes entered the assembly. Then imagine a poor man with filthy clothes also showed up. 3 Would you tell the rich man, "Please sit here," while you told the poor man, "Stand over there," or "Sit by my feet?" 4 If you did, wouldn't you be like the corrupt judges who like the company of rich people? 5 So, listen, my dear brothers and sisters. Didn't God choose the poor of the world to become rich in faith? Didn't he promise them his Kingdom? After all, the poor do love God!

Literal Translation

1 My brothers, not in preferring the presence (of some over others), hold to the faith in our LORD JESUS CHRIST, (the One) of glory. 2 For, if someone should enter the assembly (wearing) gold rings and in bright clothes, and a poor man should enter in shabby clothes as well, 3 and you should look upon the (one) wearing bright clothes and you should say, "Please sit here," and to the poor (man) you should say, "Stand there," or "Sit under my footstool," 4 do you not distinguish (social class) among yourselves and become judges with evil intents?

5 Listen, my beloved brothers. Did not God (personally) choose the poor of the world (as) rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to (those) loving him?

2:1 "preferring the presence (of some over others)" is literally "receiving the faces (of some)." To receive the face of someone meant recognizing their presence (and importance). A king would recognize the presence of nobility over the common person, for example. Such a person was worthy of notice, social engagement, and favors. Of course, this also meant ignoring the presence of others. There is an English phrase for such social avoidance: "turning one's back" on someone.

2:2 "assembly" is literally "synagogue." Since James did write to Jewish Christians in Palestine, he could refer to the community as a "synagogue." But the context of 2:2-4 seemed to indicate a feast or large meal hosted by a community leader.

As we learned in last week's lesson, James wrote to a Jewish Christian audience. He stressed the moral duty of the Law over the ritual and against those who saw faith as the only necessary ingredient in salvation. So, James actually had two implicit antagonists: Jewish synagogues with their connection to Temple cult and libertine Christians.

In this passage, James again argued for the morality as basis for faith in Christ. While the passage seemed self evident, there were a few undercurrents worth mentioning. First, this was a letter to a community (or communities). So, the intended audience was greater than the leadership. (Yet, 2:2-4 seemed to be addressed to leadership.) Second, the clear-cut, yet extreme choice was more of a Semitic rhetorical device than an actual problem. (After all, any leader who treated a poor man so badly would cause a scandal to the community. His attitude would be an insult the common virtue of hospitality.) Finally, the words "judging" and "judge" in 2:4 seemed to compare the evil doer with a Jewish synagogue leader. Such a leader could seat a guest in a place of honor during services. (Was James accusing his synagogue counterparts as being money hungry and social snobs?)

With these thoughts in mind, let us look to the real issue in this passage. James did not address a real problem, per se, but an attitude: social prejudice. Almost everyone prefers to associate with those of their same social standing. Or higher. Almost everyone wants to climb the social ladder. Few want to descend. No one wants to be poor, hungry, and dressed in rags. Let, as James rightfully pointed out, the poor are rich in faith. Their faith is the quiet backbone to the community. They eagerly share what they have with others, without a thought to tomorrow. For their tomorrow depends upon the Lord's goodness.

The Lord Jesus came to save all, including those who are shunned. If social prejudice disconnects us from the shunned, how can we claim to be faithful followers? The faith James professed pointed to the Lord in glory (2:1), the judge of all. If we don't judge the way he does (without favor) how can we claim to be truly Christian?

One professor I had said, "We all have prejudices. The question is: what do we do with them?" Reflect on your own personal preferences. How have you overcome your prejudices? How have these gotten in the way of your relationships? Have they affected your efforts to evangelize? How?