Monday, February 20, 2012

The Royal Law of Love

1My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  6But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court?  7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?  8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.  11For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.”  Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.  13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.       James 2:1 - 13 (NRSV)
This morning we are going to continue with James’ helpful, practical letter of advice to the followers of Jesus Christ.  We are going to look into the ugly face of prejudice and favoritism.
James was a blue-collar kind of pastor; his knees were callused from praying.  I think James would have liked Hettie Green.  Hettie Green was a millionaire.  She lived in seclusion; she was a hermit.  She had only a few friends and an ugly mongrel dog that kept biting the few friends she did have.  One of them said, "You've got to get rid of that dog."  Hettie refused.  She said, "That dog loves me and he doesn't even know how rich I am." [1]
Prejudice, whether it is towards a mongrel dog, pedigree cat, the rich or poor, young or old is not a pretty sight.  It is also not an acceptable trait for someone who claims the name Christian. 

The Problem of Favoritism 

Reading the passage is simple enough.  James says a church service is in progress.  Two guys show up at the same time; one is a winner, the other a loser!   Which one gets the attention? 
Evidently, the church in Jerusalem, pastored by James, was having a problem understanding that catering to the rich and powerful, while neglecting the needy was wrong in the sight of God. 
What exactly IS wrong with it?  Note the problems of favoritism:

#1. favoritism Shames the Poor

There were not many chairs in the synagogues.  To offer someone a chair, with a footstool, was a high honor.  To make someone sit on the floor under the footstool was a slap in the face.  It said you considered that person to be of little value.  How inappropriate in a setting where the gatherers were all people for whom Jesus died.  Jesus doesn’t consider any of us worthless!
One day Jesus sat watching people go into worship.[2]  In that culture the offering was given as you walked into the synagogue.  There were huge jars at the entrance, and you were supposed to throw in your coins.  Jesus could tell when the widow put in her two cents.  The little coins made a distinctive sound – very different from the clanging of a rich man’s huge gold coins.  Their method of receiving tithes and offerings was designed to allow the rich to brag, and to shame the poor to remind them of their place.  It is a form of prejudice and oppression.  It’s still going on today. 
A second problem…

#2. favoritism stunts spiritual growth

Calling attention to a person’s wealth – or lack of wealth – in any way is a detriment to Christian growth.   In Matthew (26.11) Jesus informed us we would always have the poor to which we must minister.  It is the churches calling to help the needy.
Today there are preachers of the PROSPERITY GOSPEL who will inform you that it is God’s WILL for you to be healthy, rich and wise (especially if you send them a hundred bucks for their prosperity!). 
That (so-called) “theology” teaches that you are somehow deficient in faith if you’re poor.  That is a severe hindrance to genuine spiritual growth.  It smells like smoke because it came right out of the pits of hell!
The unquestioned teaching of Jesus is that it is the poor who have to walk by faith a whole lot more than any of us with money in the bank!  The poor aren’t busted in faith, just in money!  Calling attention to wealth leads people to believe they’re of less value in Christ if their portfolio is puny.  A third problem…

#3. favoritism Divides the Body of Christ 

In the days of the early church, Peter went down to check out the Galatian believers.  Most of them were Gentiles; Peter was a Jew.  Jews normally considered Gentiles on a par with pond scum.   Peter, however found a great revival going on, and stayed to enjoy the fellowship.  He joined right in the party and celebrated.
But when the church folks back home in Jerusalem sent a delegation to check on Peter, suddenly his Jewish bone kicked-in, and he withdrew from fellowshipping with the Gentiles, the Goyim.  He flip-flopped with his favorite-playing, and it split the church!
Playing favorites will do that!  Like circus elephants, we’re all tied together, tail-to-trunk!  You run one over with a truck and you will affect the whole herd! 
Remember – the church is ONE body, and the body of Christ was not meant to be divided!
It is possible to be a believer and not act like it…and that is sin!  And that is the problem with favoritism, prejudice and selfishness.
What does the Lord say to do about it?  He told his half-brother James to remind us about the Royal Law of Love. 
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  James 2:8  (NRSV)
This is the substance of James’ thesis, and that so-called “royal law” runs throughout the scripture: 
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
the LORD is the maker of them all.   Proverbs 22:2 (NRSV)
15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.                    Leviticus 19:15 (NRSV)
So…what does it look like when we live according to the royal law of love?  Consider:

The Demands of “Royal Law” Living

Jesus taught the royal law with a story recorded in Luke 10:30-37.   It is the story of the Good Samaritan.  We lose some of the force of the phrase “Good Samaritan” because, in our culture, Samaritans are always good.  You do something nice for someone stuck on the side of the road and you’re a Good Samaritan. 
In Jesus’ culture, however, Samaritans were not good people, they were considered mongrels – half-Jewish, half-Arab; they were hated by both Jews and Arabs.  You weren’t even supposed to look at a Samaritan.  Yet Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman at a well; by Jewish standards she was a loose-living, sexually-“liberated” mongrel. 
But Luke records this little story of a GOOD Samaritan.  Jesus makes the mongrel a hero, and the religious Jewish leaders are the mongrels!  What does that teach us?  It teaches us at least four lessons about loving under the “royal law” of Jesus…

#1. Love People Even When It’s Unpopular

In Jesus’ story, a Jewish man travelling to Jerusalem is robbed, beaten, thrown in a ditch and left for dead.  Two very religious people (in fact preachers) on the way to temple, notice their Jewish brother in the ditch.  Both of them concoct good religious reasons why they can’t do anything for the poor guy, and just walk on by, leaving the man in his pool of blood, broken bones and bruises.  A Samaritan man is the last to come by, and, without a pause, goes more than the extra mile to help the Jewish victim. 
Now, in our culture the Samaritan is a hero, but nobody hearing Jesus tell that story would have cheered for the Samaritan; at best they would be confused.  The Jews would’ve hated the Samaritan just on general principles – just for being alive; he was a filthy Samaritan!  The Samaritans would have despised him for having anything to do with Jewish bigots; a little like if Jesse Jackson decided to join the Ku Klux Klan! 
So, there isn’t really a hero with a white hat in Jesus’ story; just a guy who helps a stranger when his friends wouldn’t, and Jesus’ strange question – who was the victim’s neighbor?  Simple, right?
The point is, no matter if it’s popular or unpopular, love people anyway.  Someone will always disapprove; they can only see through prejudiced eyes.  But God will approve because He sees your heart.  Love people even if it’s unpopular, and…

#2. Love People Even When It’s Inconvenient

There is no “good” time for ministry.  The opportunity to minister and love others is something that comes upon you.  The Samaritan was on a business trip.  He was in the land of people who hated him but found it convenient to do business with him.  He was there to make money, not help the local Jews who were tossed into the ditch by bad guys.  This ministry opportunity looked an awful lot like a detour, an inconvenient interruption in his business day.
The religious leaders saw it that way; they had to be somewhere else – church meetings, whatever.  Both had stuff to do too – the Samaritan was just a bit more ready to love.  If you’re going to live by the royal law of love, you need to be ready when God is! 
Love people when it’s unpopular, inconvenient, and…

#3. Love People Even When It’s Unprofitable

It cost the Samaritan to care for the man in the ditch. 
·        He put the Jew first; he walked and his victim rode. 
·        When they got to town, the Samaritan paid for the man’s room at the inn and medical care. 
·        He even promised to pay more if that’s what it took.
Love is costly; if it isn’t, it isn’t love!  And great love is very costly.  If you doubt that, go back to the Gospels and check out the cross.  It cost God a whole lot to love your sin away.
We love when it’s unpopular, inconvenient, unprofitable, and…

#4. Love People Even When It’s Uncomfortable.

The Samaritan could not have been very comfortable with what he did when he took the first step towards that ditch.  I can imagine the conflict unfolding in his mind –
·        What am I doing here?  I don’t even know this guy.
·        Man, this Jew smells…don’t they ever wash?
·        My wife is gonna kill me, this money was for her new coat.
But this is when the royal law of love kicked-in.  The Samaritan must have looked in the man’s eyes.  He didn’t see a Jew, or the cost; he saw a man – a fellow human being who was going to die unless someone helped.  He looked past what human reasoning would dictate about how a Samaritan should treat a Jew; he thought about how one human being should treat another.
Favoritism and prejudice are sinfully wrong.  It shames the poor, divides the church and stunts spiritual growth.  Living as a follower of Jesus Christ means a higher road, looking up, loving.  It means loving according to the royal law – when it’s unpopular, inconvenient, unprofitable and uncomfortable.

how can you live like that?

Can we talk?  You and I have our “comfort zones”.  In all candor the Samaritan’s comfort zone most likely meant he did not LIKE the Jew; but he did LOVE him.  But then, Jesus never said you must “like” one another.  In fact, he said we must LOVE one another.  This is a difference as big as the Grand Canyon.  We must be more like the Samaritan who risked all to love someone who – by all rights in that culture – would normally be his enemy.
We get it wrong in the church when we confuse “loving” with “liking”.  Jesus never said you would “like” the church either!  In fact, he said just the opposite; he said that in this world we would have trouble[3] and that following him would be like picking up a cross[4], picking up your electric chair and walking into the death chamber.  That doesn’t sound like a picnic, does it?
But then, why are so many church people nice, and winsome and kind?  It’s what happens when you choose to live by the royal law of LOVE; not the royal law of LIKE.  People love, and it changes them.  More appropriately, you choose God, and when you let God love others through you, God changes things; and the first thing he changes is you.  It’s the way He set things up in this universe.  That’s what James was telling us – mercy (God’s mercy…and ours, if we will live by the royal law of love) triumphs over judgment. 
If mercy is ever to triumph over judgment in your life, it will not happen because you’re good, or you do good stuff.  It will be because you stop trying to be so nice and do what everybody wants you to do, and you throw yourself unconditionally under the bus of God’s grace and forgiveness.  Let his mercy triumph!
And then….and only then, you will begin to love unconditionally – no matter the cost.  And you will see how God changes you and you’ll see the difference – in you AND in other people around you. 
Let mercy have you.  And then watch mercy triumph! 
May it be so in your life!

[1] Robert C. Shannon, 1000 Windows, (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1997).
[2] Mark 12
[3] John 16:33
[4] Matthew 16:24

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