Uniform 2.09.2014: Loving Everyone in Snowstorms and Beyond

James 2:1-13

This week, the Southeast experienced a rare winter storm that wreaked havoc on our routines. A mass exodus from schools and businesses when snow started to fall on untreated roads created dangerous and impassable conditions. Commutes of a few miles that would normally take fifteen to twenty minutes stretched into hours and even into the next day. More than 1,000 traffic accidents occurred in Atlanta alone as a result of icy roads, creating jams that left people stuck and stranded across the city. Unable to get students home safely, many schools kept them overnight. Other students were stuck on school buses alongside cold and frustrated motorists.

While my family enjoyed a cozy snow day in Macon, we heard story after story of friends and relatives in Birmingham and Atlanta who faced difficulties getting home or getting warm. My Facebook newsfeed was filled with stories of seven-hour commutes, cars abandoned on interstates, and treks through the snow to reach shelter or reunite with loved ones.

But in the midst of a dangerous, chaotic situation, the people of Georgia and Alabama rallied to help each other. For every story I read about someone’s struggle, I read another about someone who went out of his or her way to help those who needed it. People handed out sandwiches and hot chocolate on gridlocked highways. Able-bodied people walked to pharmacies to pick up medications for the elderly. Pedestrians helped push cars up difficult hills while people with all-wheel drive vehicles offered rides and tows to those who needed them. Teachers and administrators stayed in schools with stranded students instead of going home to their families.

The people of the Southeast witnessed James’s “royal law” this week: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8). The people passing out food or offering tows did not search out the people in the nicest, newest cars; they helped the people who needed it. The grocery stores and churches that cranked up their heat and opened their doors did not check the brand labels on people’s clothing before deciding who could come in to get warm. These good Samaritans looked at the situations of those around them and sympathized. They asked themselves what they might appreciate in those circumstances and they set out to make it possible.

James worried that the people of the church were showing partiality—favoring those who could help them get ahead while ignoring those who needed help (vv. 2-4). Modern churches are often guilty of such favoritism, too. We go out of our way to speak to well-dressed visitors or prominent members of the community, but we fail to see the homeless person who sneaks into the back pew. James argued that Christian life should focus on mercy, not on judgment. Whenever we assess someone based on their appearance rather than their need, we fail to be the kind of Christians James encourages us to be.

In situations like the South’s winter catastrophe, people live up to what James calls “the law of liberty” (v. 12) because they view others with mercy rather than with judgment. They look at the people around them and wonder what they can offer rather than what others can offer them. Too often the cooperative, merciful spirit that fuels the response to disaster does not continue into everyday life. But James challenges us to treat everyone with love, even when circumstances aren’t dire.

For James, this is the only way to fulfill God’s law and fulfill our calling to be like Christ. All of our actions must reflect God’s far-reaching grace—not just our actions during times of crisis—or we cannot claim to “really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). James warns us that failing to love our neighbors as ourselves makes us “transgressors” (v. 9), guilty of breaking the Greatest Commandment (see Mt 22:36-40) and undermining the entire law.

James’s instructions to show no favoritism can seem daunting. We are often partial to some people over others without necessarily meaning to be. But the examples of generosity and hospitality set this week by Southerners in the snow give us reason to hope that treating everyone equally is not too difficult. If we look for people in need of love before we look for people who can improve our status, we’ll be on the right track.

Discussion Prompters

1. When have you seen your community rally to help each other get through a difficult situation? How have your neighbors demonstrated the “royal law” of love (v. 8) in trying circumstances?
2. What lessons can we learn about how we should treat each other from emergency situations? How can we carry these lessons into our normal routines?
3. What evidence of partiality do you see in your life? In your church?
4. How can we seek out people in need of our love? How might looking for people to help, before we look for people who can help us, teach us to treat people equally?

Reference

Mike Morris and Andria Simmons, “Atlanta Weather| Wretched gridlock stretches into 2nd day,” ajc.com, 29 January 2014.

Reference Shelf

Living Out the Royal Law

In chapter 2 James returns to themes introduced in chapter 1: the measure of one’s religion is the mercy one shows to the most vulnerable (1:27; cf. 2:13-17); hearing alone is insufficient; disciples must do the word (1:22-25; cf. 2:8,14-26); and God has elevated the poor to a new status so the family of faith should esteem the poor (1:9-11; cf. 2:5). Here, James weaves these familiar notes into a new composition centered on fulfilling the royal law of love for one’s neighbor (2:8-13). Both partiality toward the rich (2:1-7) and inaction in the face of desperate need (2:14-26) violate this royal law of love.

James first addresses the inconsistency between the worshiping assembly’s public confession of faith in Christ as glorious Lord (2:1) and the same assembly’s public humiliation of the poor who have come to share in the service (2:2-3). The title “our glorious Lord” suggests the now resurrected and exalted Christ. If this Christ was known to treat the poor with mercy and respect how much more so should self-professed believers follow that example (cf. Phil 2:5- 11). By acting on class-based distinctions that God does not make and that Jesus did not make during his earthly ministry, the assembly belies their professed faith; they do not act like God’s people or followers of the Christ.

Apparently, the local congregation has bought into the world’s perverted values (2:4), reflected in the worshiping assembly’s discriminatory seating practice. The richly clad guest is politely escorted to the best seat in the assembly; the visitor in soiled work clothes or the tatters of the homeless receives a dismissive, “Stand there” or “Sit on the floor.” The command to the poor guest is literally to “sit under my feet,” an invitation suggesting the public humiliation of vanquished foes (Ps 110:1). God’s kingdom, however, belongs to the poor (Jas 2:5; Matt 5:3) and the poor belong in the kingdom; the ongoing life of the gathered assembly should reflect this reality. Currying the favor of the rich and powerful, who are presumed to be in a position to reward those seeking their patronage, while treating the poor as if they do not belong in the kingdom community, reveals that the assembly has been stained by the world’s values (Jas 1:27). Covetous desire is their motive (Jas 4). Rather than holding fast to their professed faith with integrity, these ‘ushers’ have become judges who render decisions based on outward appearances rather than the facts of the case. For James the relevant facts are these:

• God has chosen the poor to be rich within the realm of faith and heirs of the kingdom (2:5);
• what the assembly can anticipate from the rich are court dates and public ridicule of Christ’s name (2:6-7) rather than favors; and
• discrimination against the poor is unloving (2:8), unlawful (2:9), and unwise, given the criteria for God’s judgment—that we display mercy (2:13a).

James’s prohibition of favoritism in the assembly does not mean that God is strictly impartial; indeed, God has shown preference for the poor, who have been chosen to be rich within the sphere of faith and heirs of God’s kingdom (2:5). The poor James has in mind are totally dependent on others’ alms. Though “nobodies” from the world’s vantage point, these poor who love God are nevertheless “somebodies” from the perspective of faith; they are rich heirs of God’s promises. The worshiping assembly stands to gain from these poor who know about faith proven in hard struggle, who demonstrate love for God by caring for their own, and who hope that God will intervene on their behalf. The assembly ought to emulate God, welcome these poor as God has embraced them, and address their physical needs as agents of God who is their protector. Such respectful and caring practice would demonstrate “pure and undefiled religion” (1:27). Instead, the assembly caters to the rich, adopting the world’s values—you are what you have; your value is measured by your net worth. Such worldly favoritism is unwise. In James’s experience, the worshiping assembly can expect little more from the rich than a court appointment where the rich will use their pull to satisfy their self-centered desires and a public ridiculing of the Christ who is closely identified with those (poor) who bear his name (2:6-7).

The measure of the assembly’s treatment of guests, whether rich or poor, is the royal law of neighbor love (2:8). This law is “royal” because it is the king’s law or the kingdom law. For those submit- ting to the rule laid down by “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” this law holds sway (Matt 19:19; 22:39). Members of the worshiping assembly are invited to identify with their guests and treat them with the respect and care they would wish to be shown. Discriminatory behaviors that devalue the poor are clear violations of this law of neighbor love (Jas 2:9). James disallows any protest that his addressees have fulfilled other demands of the Law; the Law is a whole and whoever breaks a part has violated the Law entirely (2:10-11). Those who have shown disrespect for those in abject poverty are lawbreakers, just as adulterers and murderers are. Rather than continue as lawbreakers, those gathered for worship are to act as ones who are to be judged by a different standard—the law of liberty or the liberating law (2:12). For James, the law of Christ that sets us free is that that bids us love our neighbor as ourselves.

Resource

Edgar V. McKnight & Christopher Church, Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008).

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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