James minced no words. In the second chapter of his short letter he cut straight to the heart of the way we treat others. The temptation is to look at potential relationships in terms of benefit as opposed to personhood. Rather than considering the heart as God considers (1 Samuel 16:7) we look at the exterior. In James’ example between rich and poor, the temptation is to incline ourselves towards the rich because on the surface they seem to have more to offer.
So James gave the order: stop showing partiality.
If a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? ~ James 2:2-4 (ESV)
As followers of Jesus we are to be like our Savior-King. He’s the one who made himself weak, got his hands dirty, and suffered death in order to serve the spiritually poor and needy trapped in rebellion. As creator and therefore owner of everything, you don’t get any richer than God. Yet Jesus set aside his richness in order to become poor for our sake. Instead of looking at us and asking what he could gain from us (which is truly nothing as we have nothing to offer), Jesus concerned himself about how he could provide gain for us.
Instead of being people who rub elbows with the rich and powerful in order to benefit, we are to see the value of the person as a person. All people are created in the image of God, so all are therefore worthy of honor and respect from us (1 Peter 2:17). Some people operate under the mantra, “If you want me to respect you then you have to respect me.” Followers of Jesus are to say, “I will honor and respect you simply because you are a fellow human being regardless of if you respect or act respectably.”
A step beyond this, we are to understand that the poorest follower of Jesus is spiritually rich because they belong to the King. James wrote, “My dear brothers and sisters, listen: God has picked the poor of this world to become unfathomably rich in faith and ultimately to inherit the Kingdom” (2:5, the Voice).
Though in our sin we are helpless rebels who have spurned the goodness of God, in his grace we become sons and daughters of the King who will inherit the world with Jesus. If the poorest person on earth has Jesus, then he or she is far richer than all the wealth of the world combined. If the richest person on earth is without Jesus, then he or she has no lasting treasure and will lose everything when they die.
Sometimes the temptation of a church is to look at the bottom line. How much money do we need to pay salaries and bills, to support mission projects, to have fellowship meals, etc.? Staring at the bottom line makes us yearn for more money to do the things we want to do. Longing for this money makes us favor the rich who can give it.
Yet the eternally rich poor person has more to offer for the sake of the gospel and the spiritual health of a church. We don’t need the fanciest buildings, the newest carpet, or the softest chairs and pews. We do need people who understand that Jesus is everything and without him we are eternally lost.
So instead of looking at people for what they have to offer us materially, we should see them for who they are spiritually. Better a poor widow who can only offer two pennies but loves Jesus than a rich businessman who can shell out hundreds without blinking but rejects the gospel.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.