My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For 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’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement. — James 2:1-13 (NRSV)
The Smothers Brothers were among the country’s favorite comedians and, as is common with pairs in comedy, one was sort of the guy who set everything up and the other got most of the laughs. Dick was the straight man, the one who continually asserted his superiority by heaping scorn and derision on Tommy who usually seemed to be slower of thought and sometimes stumbling of tongue but who usually came up with the punch line or the gag line of the routine that got all the laughs. One of their most famous routines certainly spoke to almost every kid who had brothers and/or sisters. Dick would be on one of his usual harangues but Tommy came up with the line, “But Mom always liked you best!” It cracked the audience up, usually because they could identify with it to some extent. And therein lies the heart of the first part of today’s epistle lesson.
Favoritism seems to be one of our favorite occupations these days. Go stand at the water cooler (or the coffee machine) at work and see who gets pointed out as the boss’s pet employee, the one who gets the plum assignments, frequent bonuses or praise, even who gets in a little later and leaves a bit earlier without anyone really saying anything about it. Watch the business news and see which country gets listed as a most-favored trade partner, usually because it has a lot of what we need and we’re willing to give them concessions we wouldn’t otherwise do. Go to a restaurant and see who gets the really good table, who at church always gets asked to read the lessons or be part of the altar party, even who is the person everybody seems to gather around at a party. Lots of examples, and those don’t even scratch the surface. We favor the winners, the rich, the powerful, the well-dressed while the losers, poor, powerless and often shabbily clothed get pushed aside or ignored. According to James, favoritism toward those who are part of the “haves” is not a good thing. According to Jesus, favoritism should be reserved for those who are in need — the poor, sick, widowed, orphaned, or anyone who wouldn’t make most people’s A list.
The sudden jump from favoritism to a discussion of the law seems a bit jarring, but then, I think it speaks to favoritism of another kind — favoritism toward self and self-gratification over generosity, humility, and love of neighbor. The law is designed to establish norms between people — even between people and God. Anything that disrupts that relationship of equality through obedience threatens the peace and harmony of the whole. Deciding that the law doesn’t apply because one feels one is somehow entitled to disregard it or bend it to give themselves a bit of an edge over everyone else really practices self-favoritism and as such goes counter to the message of James and the teachings of Jesus.
It’s hard not to play favorites. Everybody has a circle of friends of which there are those who are closer than others based on different criteria and favorites of all kinds from foods to political or religious preferences. Everybody has pet ways of expressing their own self-favoritism like speeding on the freeway or maybe choosing to use the express lane in the grocery store when the shopping cart has 5 or 10 items over the stated limit. “Love your neighbor” is probably the hardest commandment to live up to — or even live with. It means putting favoritism aside and seeing the image of God in every single person, regardless of their compatibility with me, their ability to do something for me or even who seem more attractive or fun to know or be around.
The upshot of the passage is that if I do as I am supposed to do, what Jesus taught and was confirmed by James, then I’d better take a look at how I practice or don’t practice favoritism, including to myself. In the interest of loving my neighbor maybe I’d better slow down on the freeway, live quietly, look for chances to do even something small for someone else who needs it and quit using the principle of “what’s in it for me.”
Well, maybe I won’t give up some partialities (like turkey sandwiches and baroque music) and some friends will always be closer friends than others, but when it comes to the rest of it, I guess I’d better get to work. Still, there’s one thing I’d like to be sure of and that is that God likes me best!