how do we live together – rich and poor?
We are working our way through the Epistle of James over the next several weeks, so a word is in order about the author and intent. Most scholars believe James was a Greek speaking Jewish Christian located in Jerusalem speaking to other Jewish Christians who had left Palestine and were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Evidence indicates he was the likely brother of Jesus and the same one mentioned in the book of Acts, who offered guidance to Gentile outsiders status in the Church. Like other Jewish Christians, for James the focus of faith is on worship of God and the highest moral conduct. This moral righteousness is called holiness. A holy life that rooted in the worship of God and the practice of mercy and compassion is the goal of Christian existence.
What has happened that stirred up James so fiercely?
Apparently, the rich and powerful were being given preferential treatment in the congregation. The best seats in the house were reserved for those with the most money, while the poor were relegated to the margins if not the outside. This, of course, is fairly common in the every society where class is well marked by economic status. Certain perks flow the rich, including power over those of lesser rank. It is so common, in fact, that the Church was taking that arrangement of the rich and poor for granted and acting just like the surrounding culture. That appears to be the heart the problem. The Church is to be different because its follow a different pattern; one established by Jesus in which the law of love is upheld and favoritism renounced. Wealth is not leveraged for power. The poor are not despised, anymore than orphans and widows are neglected. In fact, they are honored.
So I imagine something like this could have happened.
To be honest, everyone felt embarrassed after it happened, but at the time no one was thinking much about it. It’s not that anyone was malicious or anything like that. I guess that’s why it is so embarrassing: it happened when they weren’t thinking. It seemed natural; just the way things are.
It was in the afternoon when people were arriving early to get the best seats. They had been warned that the sanctuary would be full. “Standing room only” said the pastor, “come early”. They did, at least most of them did. Children are filling the place, squirming and giggling, more than ready to sing their hearts out for anyone who will listen, but especially mom and dad. They’ve been rehearsing for months; all of them: children, youth and adults. This is the event of the year for the congregation; they’ve invited the community, too.
One family in particular is more nervous than others. They haven’t been attending worship very long. They feel self-conscious. He can’t afford a coat much less a suit; she’s wearing the same dress she always wears for Church and it’s at least 10 maybe 15 years old. They do the best they can with the kids. This afternoon is no different, all four of them sitting there feeling a little awkward. Tammy insisted they all come to hear her sing. They got there early to get a seat on the front pew. Of course, it wasn’t that they had to, they wanted to; in fact, they wanted to feel a part of the congregation, too. They didn’t like being poor and they didn’t want that to keep them from church–especially the children. Tammy had made friends at school with one of the girls who invited her to sing with the youth choir. It’s a place where she feels accepted.
The church is full. It’s five minutes to four. The organist is playing softly; the choirs are gathering up front. Someone taps Bill, Tammy’s dad, on the shoulder. He looks toward the aisle where an usher is motioning to him. He slides in front of the kids and his wife out into the aisle. The usher is whispering loudly something about a family that has just arrived. Apparently they are prominent, wealthy members of the community who have been visiting the church. The usher lays his hand gently on Bill’s shoulder. He is asking him to do him a favor. Would he and his family mind giving up their seats? Tammy’s dad feels himself sinking. He flushes red in front of everyone, mumbles “sure” to the usher and looks bewildered at his wife. They slide out of the pew by the side aisle. There are chairs in the back for them to sit with the latecomers. The children can’t see even when they stand on the seats and Bill never gets to take the picture of Tammy he wanted. His wife never said a word.
Something like this seems to have occurred among James’ congregations. The rich with all the bling gets special treatment while the poor get no treatment at all. We might say to ourselves this is really quite an overstatement, things like this don’t really happen. That would be false. We know it does and sometimes more subtly than not. Wealth brings access and power. That’s a fact. What one does with that access and power is an altogether different matter. Some exercise it with humility and integrity that leads to a greater good; others for no good at all.
The question that James raises for Christians is how are we to live as a community that includes the wealthy and the poor? What is the pattern of life that will actually bring abundant life to the rich and the poor? What do each need that perhaps the other can provide?
What is often ignored is that those with excess wealth carry burdens, just as those with modest income or no income at all. Their liberation may come in sheer fact of God’s grace that respects neither wealth nor poverty but is poured out in abundance upon all. Generosity is liberation. Sharing creates relationships that are not based on economic power. Access and power may be intoxicating but drunks all end up alone in the same misery. I think James would have us understand that the freedom to love as God loves is the reason we pattern our life after the manner of Jesus.
Saint John Chrysostom in 4th Century offered this comment on James to his congregation.
Salvation in Christ breaks down all barriers between human beings. It is clear that for James some of the most intractable problems on this score were influenced by economic factors. Rich people in the church were expecting and receiving special consideration from their wealth. This was an insidious attack on the gospel, which especially honored one who was poor in worldly goods but rich in spiritual things. To show contempt for the poor is as much an infraction of the law as murder or adultery, and is even more serious because it is so common. Christians must learn to fight against the temptations of worldly wealth and concentrate on the blessings of God, which are the only true riches. Both rich and poor belong together in the one body of Christ.
What I find most disturbing about Chrysostom’s sermon is the assertion that contempt for the poor is a more serious offense than adultery or even murder. Why? Because it is so common that no one pays attention to it. It’s not that murder is excused or adultery. It’s that this deference to the wealthy and disdain for the poor goes unnoticed. That is the offense. Such practice may be common but it is not be common in the Church. One might think then that the obvious response is impartiality.
But James says the Church is to pattern itself by a spiritual practice that is more radical than mere equality. The Church is to pattern our practice after the pattern of God who shows partiality to the poor. Much like Saint Paul’s admonition to give preference to the weak over the strong, James says God has chosen the poor that they may show the rich an abundant life that is not determined by your possessions, wealth or power. God is partial to the poor in order that rich and poor together may experience a common life rooted in the blessings to God.
One could say more, but this is enough. Let us find our common life rooted in the blessings to God.