Love and the Law
Introduction: Several times, in connection with a church event, I recall conversations that shocked me. A couple of times I recall talking to church members who I did not know well, and they thanked me for talking to them. Why should they thank me, I asked? Because they felt a class difference between us. Once, a friend told me he was amazed I would be his friend because of the differences in our jobs. Another time, a medical doctor in church noted that we were both wearing suits, and suggested that those who did not were of lesser worth. I pointed out that we wore suits to work, and that might be the primary reason for what we wore to church. It was not a question of worth. There are other examples I could recite. Each time someone suggested that my education or my job made me more worth-while than someone else, I was either surprised or offended. James talks about this in our study today, but what he says (at least on the surface) offends me too. Let's dive into the Bible and have an honest discussion of "class" issues!
- Read James 2:1-4. What do you think, do all who come to church deserve a good place to sit? (Yes, of course.)
- Can you think of any reason to discriminate, on the basis of wealth, between visitors who come to your church? (If I could convince a very rich person to become a member, it could be a great financial blessing to the church. A very poor person might become a financial liability for the church.)
- James calls this "discrimination" and "evil thoughts." At what point is discrimination using common sense and at what point is it evil? (Treating poor people badly is evil. Recognizing the advantage that a person can bring to your church is common sense.)
- Let's take this out of the money and class discussion for a moment. Would you work harder to convince a great singer or great Sabbath School teacher to join your church then someone who will just warm a pew? (This reflects the common sense aspect of this.)
- Read James 2:5. If discrimination based on wealth is evil, isn't it discrimination for God to favor the poor over the rich?
- Notice that James is asking a question. I think he is being rhetorical, but let's treat it as a real question. How would you answer it? (My answer is "no," God has not chosen those who are poor to be rich in faith. Consider several of the heros of the Old Testament: Moses, Abraham, Job, King David, Daniel - not one of these was poor.)
- Read Hebrews 11:32-39. What does this suggest about success, wealth and faith? (All of these people had faith - even though their lives turned out very differently. The point here is that money and success on earth are not related to faith.)
- Scan Deuteronomy 28. What is the message here about obedience and wealth? (This is a chapter to which I often refer. It says obey God and prosper. Disobey God and your life will be a disaster. In particular, it says disobedience brings poverty.)
- That means we have three apparently different messages: James says God favors the poor with faith, Hebrews says faith has no relationship to success on earth, and Deuteronomy says that obedience (faith) brings wealth. How would you reconcile these three Bible messages?
- Read Proverbs 10:15 and Proverbs 4:6. What do these texts say about wealth and wisdom? (They protect the person who possesses them.)
- A popular book, the Bell Curve, connected higher intelligence with greater education, and greater education with higher income. I realize that wisdom and intelligence are not the same, but I believe these two Bible texts and this book tend to prove a point about the wealthy - they are protected by their money and their intelligence. How would you relate this idea to James 2:5? (Those who do not have money or high intelligence to protect them, are more likely to turn to God for protection. Those who can rely on money and intelligence to solve problems, are less likely to turn to God to solve problems.)
- Look again at James 2:5. If James is to be understood in a way consistent with Hebrews and Deuteronomy, would it be fair to say that "chosen" means the poor are more likely to turn to faith in God for problem-solving?
- Read James 2:6. Let's go back to the original problem - making the poor sit on the floor while giving the rich a nice seat. If you were to engage in common sense discrimination based on income, what would you conclude about the poor? (They were more likely to be filled with faith - and thus people you want to have in your church.)
- Class Warfare
- Read James 2:6-7. If someone asked you James' three questions, would you say that person showed favoritism towards the poor? Doesn't this person sound biased against the rich?
- Notice that James' questions are based on factual assertions - the rich exploit you. If this were not true, would James have a convincing argument? (James was most likely writing to people who were now poor, so he might be appealing to bias, but if what he said came only from bias, I doubt he would be believed. This must reflect the context of the time.)
- What about your context, do the rich exploit the poor or do the poor exploit the rich? (I live in a democracy. Because we have more poor people than rich people, the rich are outnumbered in votes. When God was in charge of Israel, He created a basic 10% tax (a tithe)on income, regardless of the amount of income. Leviticus 27:30. Where I live, the rich pay more because they earn more, but they also pay a larger percentage of their income. At one point, the rich were taxed at a marginal rate of 90% of income. (That has since been repealed.) What does this suggest about exploitation in my culture?
- Hopefully, fistfights have not broken out during this Bible discussion! Let's get back to James' original concern about bias. Should our views on wealth cause us to treat people poorly when they come to church? If you think the rich are taking advantage of you or you think the poor are taking advantage of you, how should you treat those who you think are taking advantage? (We should not insult anyone by treating them poorly.)
- Look again at James 2:7. Is this true in your culture, that the rich slander Jesus' name? (If there is an inverse relationship between money and reliance on God, then this is likely true.)
- Where would we want to seat those who slander Jesus? (It they are serious in coming to church, we certainly want to give them good seats so they can hear the gospel message.)
- Do you think James would disagree with what I just suggested? (I hope not! James condemns insulting the poor. I agree. James is not saying anything about how we should seat those who most need to have their hearts converted.)
- Universal Lawbreakers
- Read James 2:8. Wait a minute! What does James say is the universal rule of law? (To love others as we love ourselves.)
- How would you apply this rule to our class warfare discussion? (No bias is permitted at all. No bias against the poor. No bias against the rich. No bias against those in the middle. We treat everyone just like we would like to be treated.)
- Read James 2:9-11. Is James telling us that showing favoritism to the rich is just like killing the poor and showing favoritism to the poor is just like killing the rich?
- Are you grateful for grace right now? (Read Romans 3:19-24. James is making a very important point, if you violate any part of the law you violate it all. The law sets before us the goal of putting bias behind us, and treating others with love. But, thank God, we are saved by faith in Jesus.)
- Read James 2:12-13. Are you going to be judged by the law? (Not according to the text we just read in Romans, if you rely on Jesus' righteousness.)
- What, then, is James' point? (Those who are not saved by grace will be judged by God's law. Wouldn't it make sense to live in accord with God's law? God's law is for our benefit, therefore it gives us freedom for those saved by grace.)
- Friend, this lesson, at bottom, is about showing favoritism. Is this a problem in your life? If you say "no," I doubt your word. Why not be honest, right now, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you show equal love to those around you?
- Next week: Faith that Works.