It is a common expression which comes from a common practice of people evaluating other people’s status. It is a simple question of one person to another about a third party: “What do you think he or she is worth?” It is a question we most often use when trying to determine how much money someone has — what their total assets are. We ask how much someone is worth and judge their value by how much money they have. The implication is that the more money they — the more wealth they have — the more valuable they are and the more status in society they have.
The scripture text from the book of James tells us not to show favoritism or partiality to those who are rich and those who are poor. James describes an encounter in a church where an obviously wealthy man is shown the best of hospitality and given a good seat in the house of worship, while an obviously poor man is shown contempt and told to sit on the floor.
James knew that many churches in his day did this preferential treatment all the time. And things have not changed much since then. Many churches today show this kind of partiality of favoring those who look well-to-do and shunning those who who are of small material means. In response to our prejudice, James writes: “…have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” It is obvious to James that a person’s worth is not determined by how much money they have.
But that is not the way of the world. What do we value above all else in the world? What is the goal of this generation in life? Success. We value and aim for success. What kind of success? Worldly success. Material success. We desire to have comfortable home and nice things. We admire those who have comfortable homes and nice things. We want to be like those who have comfortable homes and nice things. We want to associate with those who have comfortable homes and nice things.
Perhaps, we are hoping that being near those who are successful will make us successful. Or we just need to gain the favor of the wealthy to further our own ends. Successful people can perhaps open doors for us to our own success, so we treat them with respect, while poor people can do nothing to our foster our success, so we find them worthless.
Of course, it is also possible that we treat the poor poorly because they make us feel guilty. We have all been approached by people looking for a hand out. We feel obligated to give them something since they asked us for it. So we feel guilty if we send them away with nothing, and we experience that guilt by being angry at ourselves, or angry at the person who asked something from us. We always give something — but sometimes that something is not money, but guilt and anger. In one way or another, we try to make them feel inferior.
The Apostle James says that is a bad habit which we need to change. James says that we need to change our bad habits of judging people by their outer appearance — especially if habit of prejudice moves us to show partiality to the well-to-do and treat the poor poorly. In verse 5, James writes that God’s prejudice is for the poor: “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters, has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom God promised those who love him.” God favors the poor because they have the potential to be rich in faith.
In one of Jesus’ first major public sermons we find in the gospel of Luke, he begins with: “Blessed are you who are poor, yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” …etc.
Some of us may find this excerpt from Jesus’ sermon a bit disturbing. Jesus is not blessing “the poor in spirit” as he does in Matthew’s gospel. No, here, Jesus is talking about those who are materially poor as being blessed. But that blessing comes from God in God’s Kingdom. People on earth still show favoritism for the rich and verse 6 says by doing so “… you have dishonored the poor.” Imagine that in an age when it is almost a virtue to condemn the poor, that James writes that church people have dishonored the poor. If people can be dishonored, then they must have worth that is due to them. God values the poor. God gives the poor worth.
James goes on to remind his readers about the rich: “Is it not the rich who exploit you? Are they not the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of the One to whom you belong?” James is pointing out to the church members that the rich give them poor wages while keeping the profits for themselves. The rich charge high rent or mortgages and then drag people into court when they can not pay. And then the rich blaspheme God’s name because they worship money over God, and obey the commandments of making money over the commandments of God. How many times have we heard the excuse of the rich, “It is not personal, it is just business.” As if doing business — aka making money — is outside the realm of morality. For some people, the means of making money has no morality, and can not be judged.
Unfortunate for those who think so, God disagrees. God believes that God’s laws supersedes any other laws, including any laws about making money. For God, even business is personal and should be moral. God judges how people treat other people even in business. James writes in verse 8 and 9: “If you really keep the royal law found in scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law of lawbreakers.”
So how do we move away from showing partiality or favoritism — making distinctions and judging other people on their outer appearance? We could realize that God favors the poor. We could understand that God calls for justice in treating the poor. We could know that God commands for us to treat the poor of equal worth to the rich. But the most important thing we need to do is to form new habits. We need better habits and the place to start is to obey the royal law to love your neighbor as yourself. It is the law which is at the very center of God’s Kingdom. And when we show favoritism, we break the law of love. God calls upon us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our fellow human beings are of equal worth to ourselves whether they be rich or poor, strong or weak, Jew or Gentile, male or female.
There are many today who are rich or want to be rich, however, who claim that Jesus said we could ignore the needs of the poor when he said that “you always have the poor with you.” Do you remember when Jesus said that? Jesus knew that his death was imminent and a woman came to Jesus and poured a very expensive ointment on his head. Someone present commented that this was such a wasteful act since the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus rebukes that person by telling everyone to leave the woman alone “For you always have the poor with you…” But then, Jesus continues: “you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”
Some people have taken Jesus words about a particular incident near his death and use it as an excuse to not show justice or kindness to the poor. But it seems very clear that Jesus considers justice and kindness to the poor as essentials of the “love your neighbor as yourself” law.
Christian writer and editor of Sojouner’s Magazine, Jim Wallis, often asks at his speaking engagements “In America, what is the most famous Biblical text about the poor?” He says that every time he asks the question, he receives the same answer: “You always have the poor with you.” Wallis explains that Jesus was speaking to his disciples and the reason Jesus’ disciples will always have the poor with them is because that is their job. Their job is to minister to the outcasts and rejects of society. Jesus assumed that his followers would be continuing to minister to the poor and down trodden.(3) Wallis says that Jesus saying that “you always have the poor with you” was a reminder of the Christian job, not an excuse to ignore them.
There was that story Jesus told of the unnamed rich man and the poor man Lazarus. The rich man ignored poor Lazarus who lived by the rich man’s gate hoping to get the left over garbage from the rich man’s table leavings. Both the rich man and Lazarus die. The rich man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to heaven to be with Abraham. The rich man is tormented, but he still has the bad habit of showing partiality and distinctions as he calls upon Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him a Perrier. Even in the afterlife, the rich man treats Lazarus like a servant. Abraham refuses, and the rich man asks for Lazarus to go back to warn his brothers not to make the same mistake he has made. Once again, Abraham says no, reminding the former rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets and they should listen to them. Long before Jesus, people knew God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself which comes from Leviticus 19:18.
James remarks in verse 13: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy… “ “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The rich man showed no mercy to Lazarus. In verse 14, James writes: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” The rich man in the story may have had faith. He might have been the most faithful member of his synagogue. But he did not show any good works since he failed to help poor Lazarus who was at the gate of his house.
“Can faith alone save you?” asks James. He goes in verse 15: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
There is a danger of hypocrisy if we say we love the Lord and do the will of God, but do not actually do what God says we should do. The Apostle John tells us that we can not love God unless we love our neighbor as well. A follower of Jesus who tells poor people to “keep warm and eat your fill” while failing to make an effort to clothe and feed them is not a follower of Jesus.
But many people do exactly that. We pray to God in gratitude for all our blessings and ask God to take care of the poor and unfortunates of the world. “Thank you for our family and our homes and the comforts we have in life. But we would like it if our families were nicer, and our homes bigger, our jobs better and our salaries larger. God, you can do all things, so we know that two-thirds of the world’s population is undernourished, so could you feed them Lord and make them comfortable, while we tend to the comfort of our lives.”
Many of us pray a prayer like this — at least once in a while. We may pray for the poor, but we pray that God will take care of them for us. So James is encouraging us in the most strong words to make it a habit to keep our faith and works together. Telling someone to “keep warm and eat their fill” without doing something about it is a waste of breath, and actually does more harm than good. Faith without work is dead. Faith and works are really two sides of the same coin. What we say and what we do should be the two sides of the same coin.
The testimony of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is that our closeness to God is reflected in how we treat those who are less fortunate than ourselves. And the unfortunate truth is that there are many people who are not really close to God or their fellow human beings. The commandments of God and the teachings of Jesus are in contention with the values of society. We live in a society which values success and success is most often understood as the accumulation of material wealth. And because we define and determine success in such a way, we favor the wealthy over the poor.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the Final Judgment where he separates the good from the bad. He tells the good that they are blessed because when they saw him in need they fed him, clothed him, visited him, welcomed him. Then he tells the bad that they are bad because when he was in need, they ignored him. Both groups ask when they ever saw him, and Jesus responds that when you did this, or did not do anything, to the least of these, you did it to me. Jesus identifies with the poor and unfortunates of the earth. If we do something good to the poor, it is as if we have done to personally to him. And if we ignore the poor, it is as if we have ignored Jesus in need.
God does not value our bank accounts. God values our faith put into action. God values the fortunate helping those in need, not just in charity, but also in justice. What determines a person’s worth is not their amount of money, but that God loves them. God’s love is what gives us value and worth, and God loves all people equally, rich and poor alike. So we should love our neighbor as ourselves, no matter what earthly wealth they have or have not. Our true wealth and worth is found in God’s love and it is our greatest reward.