Who do you admire? What celebrity would you be most excited about meeting?
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet in person a pastor and author that I seriously admired. He was speaking at a conference I was attending and was hosting a book signing afterwards. I grabbed a hardback copy of his newest, thickest book and waited in line. Eventually I came face to face with him, and did the typical stammering kind of “Thank you so much, I love your work.” He grinned, signed my book and we snapped a picture. It was a little ridiculous how excited I got about something that only takes a few sentences to explain, but so it was. I walked away to a group of my equally excited friends and for whatever reason the only thing that seemed appropriate to do was to jump and give each other a high-five (as I am writing this down, this sounds more and more ridiculous). But in mid-jump, tragedy struck.
The cover of the book, due to it being so brand spanking new, was very slippery – too slippery. As my right hand connected with the high-five in mid-air, I felt the weight of the book exceed the strength of the grip in my left hand, and watched it, in slow motion, slip out my hands and fly away. The book, rotating and flapping open, careened in an arc-like motion directly towards the booth where I just came from. More accurately put, directly towards the back of the head of the man who just signed my book.
In a matter of milliseconds, while said book was still in flight, I reasoned that I probably was going to jail. No apologies or explanations would suffice. Any one standing by would probably think I was trying to hit him with his own book, like I was trying to make a statement. People would think I had some kind of deep hatred for the guy, so I threw his book like a ninja star at the back of his head. Write a giant heavy book, will you? Well, let’s see how much you like it when I LODGE IT IN YOUR SKULL!! *cue crazy cackling*
Anyway, by God’s good providence and sweet mercy, the book managed to miss the guy’s head and wound up hitting some poor security guard standing by. I cannot explain to you the amount of relief I felt. The ten-thousand tons of fear that I felt immediately evaporated. Still, I was extremely ashamed and rushed over, apologized and attempted to explain that I was just jumping up and down with my friends like a bunch of twelve year-old girls, not making an assassination attempt or anything. Everyone seemed to partially believe me, so I grabbed my book and scurried away as quickly as possible.
As ridiculous as that story is, here is one thing that was actually worthwhile: Aside from an opportunity for me to be humbled by being humiliated, I got to spend some time thinking about how relieved I was when the book hit the security guard. Why did I feel like it was better that it hit him rather than hitting the author? I’m sure there is some sort of good reason as to why it was better that it hit the security guard, but it was still embarrassing either way – and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it felt like the author didn’t deserve to be hit by the book. I mean, of course he didn’t deserve it, but I mean it felt like he was too worthy or special to have something so humiliating happen to him. That is something that was much more appropriate for a security guard. You see, I felt like the author had what people call the “celebrity effect”: because of his achievements he was innately of greater value than the rest of us (including the poor security guard). Human beings are wired to “celebratize” others – to look up to others and view them as incredible, transcendent, and flawless. We do it all the time with actors, musicians, athletes and authors. But we also do it in day to day life with people we know, maybe not as much as famous people, but we still have “cool” kids at school, right? (Pretty sure that’s still a thing)
God Has No Favorites
And as we approach our text for today, we must let Scripture press into us and challenge this desire we have to exalt some and ignore others. In the culture that James is living in, he knows that the churches will tend to treat wealthy people with this kind of “celebrity” status, giving them the all of their attention, the best seats in the house and a higher sense of honor. Likewise, this means that the church will be tempted to treat the poor as less important than the rich – and James is pleading with them to fight against this temptation.
James says, “have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (vs. 4). In this issue with the rich and the poor, James sees the major, root problem as “making distinction among yourselves”, which then leads to them becoming “judges with evil thoughts”. Why does it seem like such a heinous thing for the church to be making distinctions? James expands on this later by showing that if you show favoritism you are breaking the second most important commandment in the Bible, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (vs. 8-9). Listen friends, if you celebratize certain people, you cannot love them, and you cannot love others.
James is drawing an immediate line from the way they are treating people at church, to violating what our Lord Himself esteemed to be the second most important commandment. So, let’s think about this for a second: In what ways do you think we are tempted to “make distinctions”? For James it was all about wealth. It is interesting, our generation has been so passionate about putting an end to bullying – but we still have bullying. Why is that? Well, the problem isn’t coming from a lack of awareness – the problem comes from sinful hearts. Society for the most part today has tried to convince us that what we need is to believe deep down that we are beautiful on the inside, when what we really need is to forget about ourselves and see Jesus as more beautiful than anything.
James seems to anticipate someone trying to blow this off as a small issue, so he presses on this even more, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (10-11).
Sin is sin – no matter how big, or how small. At times in our life we wrestle with big, obvious sins – but most of the time, our encounters with sin typically have to do with what seems like little things, like whether or not you show partiality to others. All sin offends God’s law, and therefore should be dealt with seriously.
So, as we continue to press into this subject of treating others equally, I feel that I must let the force of what James is saying fall on us with the kind of weight that James intended it to have. You may be tempted to think, ‘This isn’t that big of a deal,” but please see the danger of what you are doing. We see some sins as “big” and other sins as “small”, which actually has some truth to it – there are certain sins that have greater consequences than others; lying to me will not have the same consequences as lying to a judge. But here is one thing that is certain: big or small, sin is still sin – sin is still sin. Sin, whatever form it takes, is like poison to our soul – if I handed you two bottles of water and said that one of them was 80% full of venom, but the other was only 25% full of venom, you wouldn’t want to drink either of them.
I remember having a conversation with a young man who was sleeping with his girlfriend and was attempting to justify what he was doing by saying, “Yea, I know what I am doing is sin – but isn’t driving over the speed limit technically a sin too? And Christians do that all the time, so what’s the difference with this?” To which I responded, “Well, yes driving over the speed limit is a sin, but that doesn’t help you at all – you shouldn’t have sex with your girlfriend and you shouldn’t drive over the speed limit because they both are sins.” Yes, a Christian is someone who has their sins forgiven, that is absolutely true – but a Christian also, just as fundamentally, is someone who does not desire to continue sinning! Here is the reality: whenever we sin we are flagrantly defying God, and telling Him that we don’t care about what He says, and that we know better – all the while sin is snarling and chomping on our souls. You want to be in that position? I know I certainly don’t. Sin is serious business, and we want to kill it wherever we find it.
So, let’s go back and look at what is so particularly nasty about this sin: remember, James says that is so awful because it is making the church “make distinctions”. It is causing them to put people into classes and spots on the ladder. You know you are caught in this same trap if you have a social scoreboard always running in your mind. You know what I mean, when you are talking with someone, you are judging whether or not you are above or below them on the scoreboard. Are they as popular as me, as funny as me, as smart as me, as good looking as me, etc. James is exhorting you to let that running tally of who is “in” or “out” to die, because, “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?” (vs. 5).
God doesn’t play by the same value system the world plays by. The world honors strength, beauty, wisdom and power. Jesus honors weakness, lowliness, foolishness and helplessness. God always dates way below Himself – He is way out of our league. In fact, we are told that those are the only criteria He considers for choosing who is in His family,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” 1 Cor. 1:26-29
Now, it should be noted, this doesn’t mean that if your IQ exceeds a certain limit, you cannot be a Christian – no, it means that regardless of whatever status we achieve here on earth, we will always pail in comparison to the beauty, radiance, power and glory of the living God. Compared to God, we all are foolish, we all are weak, we all are powerless. Now – Scripture does tell us that those, by worldly standards, who are poor, weak, and destitute are much more likely to acknowledge their own weakness than those who are rich, powerful, and influential. And that is why Scripture often speaks of the unique blessing that comes to those who are the lowliest. But, let’s return to James line of thought.
When you and I attribute more worth, more value to someone, we actually are using the opposite standard that God uses. God indiscriminately shares His love to all people who acknowledge their weakness – not to the social elites. Our lives are meant to be lived as a picture of God, a display of who He is and what He is like, so the world around us may see and know Him. So, when we look on someone who is different than us, maybe beneath or above us on the social ladder, and we immediately make a judgment about their innate worth and value – then God shall find us guilty of false advertising. That is not how God loves them, and that is not how He loved you.
Here is the gospel of Jesus Christ: “For while we were weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8). Jesus came and took you when you were weak. It was your weakness, not your strength that led Him to lay down His life on the bloody cross for you. And because you admitted your weakness, He bestowed a value and worth upon you that is infinitely superior to anything this world can give you: He calls you His child, with whom He is well pleased. And because He has done that, it changes everything; you now have a new value system. Overflowing from the love you have received from the Father, you are now free to love all people, indiscriminately.
All people stand as equals at the foot of the Cross. When you find yourself patronizing or idolizing someone, you have probably forgot the radical nature of how you were saved.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Gal. 3:28