Read Sunday’s Lectionary Reading: James 2:1-17
Our scripture lesson in James this morning is a familiar narrative. James paints a picture that is as recognizable in first century Palestine as it is in 21st century Doylestown.
Two people walk into a place of worship: One is dressed to the nines, clean shaven, Armani suit, silk tie, pressed shirt, class ring from his days at Harvard… this guy is dressed to impress. The other guy wear old jeans with holes at the knees, no shoes, his t-shirt is dirty and ripped, hair is disheveled, he has rings under his eyes, and he smells as if he slept in the gutter after a hard night of drinking.
If we are honest, we know this story, and we know how we would act: welcome the first man in, give him a seat of honor (not too close to the front, but close enough!), and make sure he feels welcomed and comfortable. The other man, if we bother to approach him (honestly, hopefully he’ll just take a hint and leave before the first hymn), we will ask to sit in the back corner, somewhere his odor won’t offend anyone else, some place the only person who will have to look at him is the preacher, who we trust to keep an eye on him to make sure the communion silver doesn’t end up missing.
Two people walk into a place of worship, and their appearance relegates them to the front or the back. We make snap judgments that one is come to worship and GIVE, while the other has come to seek a handout.
We make sense of our world by putting things (and people) into categories. In an article that appeared in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote about the common belief that most Americans think of themselves, and call themselves, ‘Middle Class.’ Shenker-Osorio looked first at how the language of class, wealth, and poverty which we use is really insufficient to the conversation.
First, she looked at the words that generally occurred with “middle class,” “the wealthy,” and “poor.” “The most common words… co-occurring with ‘middle class’ we find ‘emerging,’ ‘burgeoning,’ ‘burdened,’ and ‘squeezed.’ These tell us what happens to this grouping. Absent are quantitative terms or descriptors for what life is like within this category” (Shenker-Osorio).
“Conversely, statements about ‘the wealthy’ co-occur with terms like ‘investors,’ ‘businessmen,’ ‘patrons,’ ‘owners,’ and ‘donors.’ What these words indicate is a sense of sources of income and, by extension, the amount compensated. The wealthy, in our language, aren’t acted upon but rather act as human members of a group who get things done and pay themselves to do it” (Shenker-Osorio).
“’Poor,’ once the meaning of low quality is filtered out, comes with ‘guy’ and ‘girl’ but also ‘homeless,’ ‘sick,’ ‘plight,’ ‘needy,’ and ‘suffering.’ Those descriptors provide a sense what it’s like to be in this group day to day, and they make pretty clear it’s made up of people who aren’t allowed any or much income” (Shenker-Osorio).
When we see celebrities and other forms of extreme wealth on display all around us, we “conclude [we] are not wealthy, so [we] tag [our]selves middle class. We’re far less keen to have the poor in view. Nevertheless, whether via images of bread lines or real life panhandlers, we have some sense of life without means. If homelessness is the salient exemplar, people are unlikely to say they’re ‘poor’” (Shenker-Osorio).
“In order to determine what category something fits into and thus what it is, we often rely on considering what it is not… Not finding popular depictions of wealth and poverty similar to our own lived experiences, we determine we must be whatever’s left over. Picking ‘middle class’ is easy enough to do because… the language doesn’t present much to go on in terms of what this label describes” (Shenker-Osorio).
Thus, Shenker-Osorio concludes that “Middle class has become a status, a brand- a label you opt to adopt,” even if that label doesn’t accurately fit.
Politicians want to paint themselves as being “Pro Middle Class,” and helping people achieve a “middle class dream.” Those politicians who live in extreme wealth themselves even work desperately hard to make themselves APPEAR Middle class- wearing jeans, going to barbecues on the campaign trail, as if simply participating in these actions will make them something they are not.
Yet this passage from James disturbs our complacency and casual attitudes. There is a lot of distance between where we sit today and the first century audience James was writing to.
“While there were the very rich (i.e., the emperor and his retinue) and the rich (i.e. landowners), the vast majority of folk, and almost certainly the vast majority if not the entirety of James’s readers, were what we would think of as ‘poor”: owning no land and few personal possessions, and spending all their income on life’s daily necessities.
“By all rights they ought to identify with the destitute man who enters their congregation: he could be any one of them, denied a few days’ work by a bad harvest, injury, or just plain bad luck. Yet instead they cast their entire, almost desperate hope on this individual who appears to have what they lack… In their eagerness to curry favor with the well-off, they slight the one with whom they should be in solidarity” (Polaski).
We should notice that the “wealthy” man is not said to actually be wealthy, but simply dressed and appearing “with gold rings and in fine clothes.” “By projecting social distance between the church members and the poor visitor, the story exposes the social situation in which we perceive ourselves. Most of us are not ‘the rich’ [even] by our own standards, either as individuals or as congregations. Our legal practices are far more evenhanded than those of the first century, but many of us still feel oppressed or manipulated by ‘the system’” (Polaski).
Now, most of us here are not, in our perceptions or in actuality, poor. Yet I feel I would be pretty safe in assuming that most of us, if not all of us, have at some point felt pinched for money, struggled to pay the bills, or have been kept awake at night trying to think of ways to get the kids through college. We have much more in common with the poor man in the story than with the rich.
James’ is not faulting anyone here for their wealth or their poverty. While there are plenty of passages in scripture that can be interpreted to fault the poor for their low station, or that damn the rich for their excesses, this is not one of them.
Rather, this is a passage that challenges us in our favoring the wealthy over the poor. And we do not only tend to do this in our churches, but in our social and economic policies. We support and elect politicians that enact agendas that are damaging to those Jesus calls us to serve, the ones James reminds us of: “a brother or sister… naked and lack[ing] daily food;” the widow, the orphan, the immigrant.
This past week it was impossible to ignore the images saturating global media of waves of Syrian refugees seeking asylum. From families confined to a sweltering train in Hungary to the body of a small boy washed up on a beach in Turkey, this is the worst refugee crisis the world has faced since World War II.
More than 15 million people are in need of assistance inside and outside Syria, about half of which are estimated to be children.
6 million people are internally displaced within Syria.
1,622,839 refugees are in Turkey
242,468 in Iraq
1,174,313 in Lebanon
623,241 in Jordan
136,661 in Egypt (Statistics from Voskamp)
Syria’s civil war, which has been raging since 2011, shows no signs of slowing, and has provide the instability that proved fertile ground for the rise of ISIS. Right now, we benefit from the privilege of distance. Syrian refugees are not pouring over our borders seeking help and assistance, desperate for safety and rootedness for their children.
And these refugees fit every definition of poor that we have. They fled their homes, sometimes with just the clothes on their back. Some have paid extreme amounts of money for what they believed was going to be safe passage for their families. One report I heard a couple of days ago said that people had paid as much as two thousand dollars for a spot on a train for their families, only to have the tickets “expire” with no refund available. They are giving everything they have out of desperation to go to a place they hope will be safe.
How we treat the other directly reflects the faith we have, not just the faith we profess to have. Our own nation has a problematic relationship with immigrants and refugees. Even though we are a country built on a rich legacy of immigration from many different places throughout the world, we have become a place where we talk about deporting people on a mass scale, building a wall to keep people out, and disenfranchising anyone who does not fit our model of “normal.”
What James is saying here is that we must welcome in the stranger, especially the poor and destitute. This is what our faith demands of us.
Now, at the same time, James is not saying that we have to embrace the poor man and kick out the rich man. The good news- no, the great news of scripture- is that there is room for all of us! At Christ’s table, there is room; when we gather around it, we stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters, no matter where they have come from, no matter what class they belong to; in Christ we are all equal, we are all fed.
“Faith involves more than affirming theological formulas, but a thorough reorientation of one’s life. Faith makes a difference in us. More importantly, faith makes a difference in our relations with our sisters and brothers: just as God has chosen needy, broken, bereft brothers and sisters as the visible embodiment of Jesus’ good news among us, so faith reorders our own desires away from securing our well-being by our own efforts, from enhancing our image by associating with glittering celebrities, and summons us to make our friends among the shabby poor, and to trust the provision of God who gives freely to all” (Adam).
Friends, embrace the other, let us open our arms to the refugee, the widow, the orphan. There is enough room; there is enough bread; there is enough space at the table. Amen.
A. K. M. Adam, workingpreacher.org
Sandra Hack Polaski, workingpreacher.org
Anat Shenker-Osorio, theatlantic.com
Ann Voskamp, aholyexperience.com