Who is My Neighbour?
Here's a quick question for you that comes from my morning reading... Is James a hypocrite? As in James the writer of the New Testament letter...
I'm one of those who is fully signed up to the idea that in scripture we find a bias towards the poor (whether that significantly affects how I live my life is another question altogether, but I at least have accepted the principle). As a result I often speak about that, and in particular the implications of that for the ministry of my current church, which is in a relatively low-income public housing estate, set within a much more affluent suburb of Belfast, which in global and historic terms is part of the most prosperous societies in world history. Often when I raise this, one of my congregation challenges this analysis and reminds me that "God so loved the world" not just the poor and the marginalised. He is one of the more economically comfortable in my congregation, so it might be easy to write off his comments as defensive, but I also know that he grew up in circumstances of grinding poverty. He is also, in large part, correct. One of the times he challenged me on this was when we were studying the Letter of James together.
And today as I was reading James chapter 2, I was struck again by the fact that the writer encourages his correspondents not to show favouritism, but then goes on to write off the rich as oppressors. Read for yourself:
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbour as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers.
James 2:1-9 (ANIV)
The question I would have for James is whether we would be convicted as law-breakers if we were to show favouritism towards the poor?
As James rails against the rich who are exploiting church members and dragging them into court, so we rail against fat-cat bankers and corrupt MPs, but are they not our neighbours too?
Or is this a question of being counter-cultural? Is James not simply saying that we should not show favouritism in the same way that the world shows favouritism... that just because the world dismisses the poor we should not... and that just because the world writes off bankers or MPs we should not...
Answers on the back of a suitably large banknote to my home address, please...