Last week, we were looking at the practical advice on Christian living given in the epistle of James, and we will continue with that today.
The first paragraph of today’s reading is really important because it offers one of the strongest statements in the Bible about God’s preference for the poor. God has a special place for those who are financially poor and struggling. The poor are not those who are working and just about managing, or who have less than the average. Rather, in the ancient world, the poor are those who have NO economic security, those who are destitute or very close to destitution, those who are really struggling to survive, those who are living hand to mouth. Modern sociologists call it Absolute Poverty. The poor are those who are generally not valued by society: in the ancient world, they were not given any respect; in our own world, we are quick to call them scroungers and lay-abouts.
The Jewish tradition was always strong on caring for widows and orphans, day-labourers and people who had come from other countries, and ensuring justice for them against those who would exploit them. James builds on that tradition.
There is a spiritual meaning to poverty. Financial poverty reflects the condition of spiritual poverty that we all experience. We are ALL spiritually poor. Not one person here can sustain themselves spiritually. We are all utterly dependent on God. When we see someone who is poor, someone who can’t cope, someone who is struggling, it reminds us of ourselves, that we are spiritually poor when we stand before our Lord.
When we are financially secure, we think we are OK. We have wages and pensions and we can afford the essentials and maybe, if we’re lucky, the odd luxury like a nice holiday. When we’re doing alright, it is easy to forget just how much we need God.
James is quite clear: God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom of heaven. James is absolutely passionate about this – you can feel his strong feelings pouring out of the passage.
James starts by talking about how we treat people in church. James says that we musn’t treat those who are financially well-off any better than we treat those who can’t afford the luxuries. So when somebody comes to church smartly dressed, with an air of worldly confidence, we shouldn’t be guiding them to the best seats or offering them the best cake after the service or bringing their tea in the best china cups. And of course, we don’t do that here. In the past, from 1800 to 1960, people would pay an annual fee for their pew in church. It was a way of fundraising in churches. The more you paid, the better seat you got. If you couldn’t pay, you could go to the free seats. I’ll bet that wasn’t popular! It is likely that this is one of the reasons that poorer, working class people felt alienated by the Church of England. I am really glad to say that we don’t do that now, and as far as I can tell, it was never part of the practice here at St Chad’s.
James recalls the law to “love our neighbour as yourself”. When you show favouritism, you are not loving your neighbour as yourself because you are loving some neighbours more than other neighbours. The rule about loving our neighbours isn’t about loving some neighbours, it’s about loving all neighbours.
And then James returns to one of his key themes – that how we live and what we do needs to reflect our faith. Our faith needs to shine through everything we do. If we see a need in the community – for example, when someone is hungry or lacks shelter or warm clothing – and we do not respond when we have the means to help, then, James says, our faith is dead.
These days, through television and newspapers and other media, we are exposed to need not just locally, but internationally. Our responsibility is not just to the people who live nearby, but to the whole world. Of course, there is no way we can address all the world’s problems and supply all its needs, but sometimes a particular situation will call out to us and we should respond. It means also that we need to be discerning about where we put our financial and emotional resources when we look to help others. But that shouldn’t weaken our responsibility for all our neighbours, wherever they live in the world.
Helping others is not just about contributing financially to their needs. It may be about volunteering in projects that help people – at the Foodbank or the Food Coop. It may be about giving people attention, listening to them perhaps – proper listening can be one of the greatest gifts you can offer, and it’s quite rare. It may be about sharing your skills.
Faith is about our relationship with God. It’s not about knowing or believing the right things, but about having a personal relationship with Jesus. God loves us SO much. He pours his love out upon us. He gave us Jesus to show us how to live and to rescue us from our sinfulness. God longs for us to love him and to follow Jesus. Faith happens when we let Jesus into our lives and ask him to walk with us along the way. Then we shape our lives around him, and we start to live his way. That’s when our faith needs to shine out in what we do.
So this is a challenge to you: what does your faith in Christ mean to you? What is your relationship with Jesus like? And how does this show forth in your life?