This week's Bible Study - November 15, 2009
Treat Everyone Equally
Quote of the Week:
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.
-- Oscar Wilde
As mentioned in previous lessons, the book of James is perhaps the most practical book of the New Testament and it often hits us square where we live. There are other passages in Scripture that can allude to certain types of behaviors or may teach practical lessons. However, the book of James hits the nail on the head and deals with many issues that we all must face. Have you ever thought about how one might go about denying their faith? What would a person actually do? Would it be renouncing church membership, bad mouthing the principles of Christianity, becoming an Atheist or other such dastardly things? Actually, James points out in this lesson that one way is by showing favoritism towards some and bias towards others.
When we think of treating others equally, we often think of the word 'discrimination'. Discrimination can actually be thought of in positive and negative terms. You may have heard of someone who makes distinctions between things and has discriminating judgment. The ability to discriminate between options can be a very positive thing and something that we need as we go forward in life. When people talk about stopping discrimination, they aren't saying that we don't need to quit making wise decisions based on the information that we have.
However, there are other cases where discrimination is seen in a very negative light. This is often defined as making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit. We all 'bin' or categorize people in different types of bins. In fact, most of us place others in these bins in the first few minutes we meet them. By looking at them, we can tell race and gender. We can see if they are tall or short, overweight or skinny. When they talk, we can often tell what part of the country they are from. We often ask where they are from, where they work, how many people are in their family, where they live and so on. It is perfectly natural to notice distinctions between people. However, when we start using those distinctions or bins to treat people differently, we are guilty of discrimination.
Discriminatory behavior starts early in life. For most kids, the school playground can be full of discrimination. I remember games we would play at recess; and the feeling as those who chose sides would play favorites. We learn these behaviors and it often continues throughout our lives, as we grow. It is in our workplaces and schools and it can also be in our churches. It impacts how we deal with others in the church, and often how we deal with others who are non believers.
James starts this chapter talking to brothers; fellow believers in Jesus Christ. We need to realize that these words are to each of us, as believers. We tend to want to push things out on everyone else, but if it doesn't start with us, what good is it? Being a believer in Jesus Christ is truly the impetus behind all the things that we do. In this passage, we see that believers are not to show favoritism. We all pick favorites in different areas. We have our favorite colors, styles, hobbies, types of shows and so on. It is fine to have a leaning in these areas, but when it comes to dealing with people, we are told to not show favorites. The Christian faith is incompatible with petty favoritism and shallow prejudice.
James gives an example which most of us can relate to. Picture yourself in your church. It may be quite full of people. As the area fills up, two men show up for the service. It is obvious that one has a lot of money. He is dressed in the latest fashion and you can tell by the way he walks that he is not used to getting less than the best. The other man is not anything like the first. He comes in rumpled clothing. He may not have washed his clothes in a while, nor taken a shower in the past few days. While people may desire to be near the first man, most people will avoid the second. What would happen in your church? What would you do?
Before we go any further, we must note what this is not saying. If one person was an elderly person with crutches or in a wheelchair and another person was young and perfectly healthy, their seating positions may be selected based on that criteria. This isn't showing prejudice, but actually showing love. The needs of the elderly person would be being met by this act.
If the church were to show special attention in where the rich and poor man sat, favoritism would have been shown. Unfortunately, I imagine this would happen in most churches, for a variety of reasons. Some might think about how much money a rich person might give to the church, solving all the church's budget woes. Some would look at the poor person and think about how they wouldn't want their children playing with that person's children. You could change these two people to two different races or colors or backgrounds or languages or any other distinction - and chances are, the results would be similar.
We could even be studying this lesson prior to the service and still find ourselves placing these two men in vastly different places. When we treat them differently, we have discriminated among ourselves and have become judges. You may also think that this may not apply to you since you are not an usher and where that person is seated is not your concern. However, we all need to be cognizant of areas in which we discriminate against other people. When you go where you go, whether it is church or work or school or the store, do you find yourself discriminating against others because of what they look like or what they wear or for any other reason?
When we think of who the world would choose and then consider who God chose, we likely will realize that it is two different groups of people. The world adores those who have 'it', where it may be money, fame, popularity or talent. Any of these people are likely to have paparazzi that follow them wherever they go. But, for most normal people, is there anyone that follows? We tend to be swayed by the world's view of people and we pay more attention to those who have, as opposed to those who have less or none at all.
While it is certainly not true that all poor people are believers in Christ, this passage talks about how the poor in the eyes of the world were chosen to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom God promised to those who love him. These are not the people that the world chooses, by and large. Certainly, God deals with the internal being of man as opposed to the external. However, many people cannot get past what they have, so that they can truly see what they need. Those who are poor and do not have everything they want are more apt to recognize their need.
God's view of the poor is quite different than our view. We tend to look down at people who are down and out. We tend to look up to people who are the ones who have things in this world. There isn't a problem with respecting other's abilities, in the area of business, education, athletics, medicine or other pursuits. Some of these people can be great as academic role models that help us make key decisions on how to advance in life. God isn't telling us to not advance in our careers, and certainly he is not saying that advancement is counter to his calling. .
When we start putting a high premium on those who have as opposed to those who are poor, we are in danger of lining up with the world. James asks the reader - Who exploits you? Who drags you into court? Who slanders the name of Christ? Even in our day, it is the people that have the money that direct how things go in our world. And, if you haven't figured that out, they don't always have your best interest at heart, unless it is to their benefit. Why would we put a higher premium on them, as opposed to those whom God has chosen? Do our views align more with God's view or are we more in line with the world?
James then begins to share about the royal law found in Scripture. He says that if we 'really' keep the law of Scripture, we are doing right. The Jewish people got the act of keeping the laws down to a science. I recently read in another study that the Pharisees created hundreds of rules for keeping the Sabbath. In the Old Testament, they were taken away in bondage, partially due to them not keeping the Sabbath. They decided that wouldn't happen again! They came up with very specific ways to show that they were keeping the Sabbath. In doing so, they lost the spirit of the law and turned it into legalism. Many people today have done the same thing. Many of us men are also guilty of another thing. We find out that there is an area that we have failed in, and we tend to overcompensate in correcting that failure. In doing so, we often forget the reason why we are doing something, and only find ourselves going through the motions (right, as they may be).
Really keeping the law of Scripture was not simply going through the motions, as if you were playing some supernatural game of hokey pokey, or Simon Says. It really comes down into how we live. James tells us that we should treat others as we would ourselves. This is in effect, loving other people. This is treating them as we would want to be treated, but perhaps in some other way than we would want to be treated. In an absurd example, you may think of someone who always wanted to be hugged, and wanting to hug everyone else because that is what they want. I know many people who do not want to be hugged by anybody. James isn't saying that you do to others what you want done to you, but treat them as you would want to be treated.
If we show favoritism, we are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. In any church, or in any group of people, there are only a certain number of people that you can really know. And, of those people, there are is a small percentage that you can get to know real well and establish deep relationships with. James is not saying that we should shun deep relationships, but that we should treat everyone equally with respect. We should not treat anybody differently because of who they are.
As lawbreakers in any specific area, we are guilty in all. We often hear of sinful behavior and point at others, because it may be an area that we have no issues. We are not to point at others and act as if we are better, because we don't do what they do. Often, when we are so intent on pointing out flaws in other's lives, we are neglecting to point out our own issues. We all have blind spots in our lives. We may spend a lot time working on holiness in a specific area, while leaving a huge gap in another area. We may be holy in one area of the law, but we've all broken another area of the law.
We tend to rank sins, from small to large. (Some say their sin is small, while others is large). God's ranking is binary. You may or may not have committed the large profile sins, but we have all sinned. The argument that murder and telling a white lie are not the same has some merit. But, who has lived through life with only telling one white lie? Our sins compound, day by day, week by week and year by year. When we have sinned in any manner, we are all considered to be sinners. As we struggle in any area of our lives, let us really pursue the royal law, and treat others as we would like to be treated.
In our lives, we are to speak and act as those who are judged by the law that gives freedom. We are called to live in a certain way in our lives, but we all will fail, and we can be thankful that God offers forgiveness. What would happen if we were truly judged according to our works? We'd all be condemned. Thankfully, we are judged according to Christ's works. The blood of Jesus Christ covers all of our sins. Think of what we have been forgiven and how we have freedom in Christ. Then, think about how we treat others, as if we may be expecting them to live a life of perfection or to make all the right choices.
James calls us to be merciful to others. This implies that we will come into contact with those who have made mistakes in their lives. How will we deal with them? Are we holdings past misdeeds over them, to let them know how they have failed, or are we willing to show mercy? Some people get so caught up in the area of right and wrong that all they can do is point out the wrong. Are we showing mercy, or are we quick to judge?
We do what we do because of who we are. We are believers in Christ Jesus. This does not mean that we have achieved perfection, nor does it mean that we ever will. It does not mean that we will never let down other people, nor does it mean that we will never be let down by others. However, in all we did, we are to continue to live in the manner that we are called to live.
Are we showing favoritism to anybody? We are called to treat people the same, regardless of what we may or may not get out of it. There is a standard of behavior that we have among friends, but I think this may primarily be speaking to those outside of the church. If we are biased in how we treat people, then we have missed the point. Do we discriminate in favor or against other people, because of their race or age or height or wealth?
Do we get suckered into the worldview of the day? Are we more concerned about what the rich and famous do, or do we care more for the people we come into contact each day? We need to align with God's view of people and see that they all have needs. If we discriminate, we are withholding from those whom God loves.
We all deal with areas of sin in our own lives. As we have ranked the sins, we may not consider ourselves to be big sinners, but Christ died for all sinners, big and little. If we can't get past what others may have done and that God can still use them, we're missing the power of God's redemption. Even after failing miserably in life, God can use the broken vessels to greatly impact the kingdom. We are all broken, but are we all allowing ourselves to be used? As broken vessels, we have experienced the grace and mercy of Christ. Are we showing that mercy to others around us?
What would happen if we could somehow demonstrate mercy in accepting others, especially those who are different from us? There are those who make us uncomfortable or are less fortunate than we are. If we could demonstrate this, it would transform our Christian witness. Are you willing to transform your witness?