The first time the man and woman came to worship they came because our services started later than other churches in town. My first impression? They had that look of misfortune, of lives not lived well. My second impression? Laziness. Who would choose a church because its starting time allowed you to sleep in later? We were all kind to them and were happy we could share our potluck dinner with them. But my conversations with them were stilted because of all the inappropriate questions I wanted to ask: I know you’re not married; are you living together? What do you want from us? Will you eventually be asking for a handout? If we go out of our way to be friendly outside the assembly, will we regret it? I didn’t pursue their friendship, or even ask if they wanted to study the Bible with one of us. Because they had that “look of lives not lived well,” I supposed that even if we started down that path, they wouldn’t stay on it long. You can always tell which people are stable and which are not, can’t you? They finally did stop coming to worship – even on potluck days. Sometimes I wonder what became of them. Did they move away? Did I misjudge them? Maybe. It’s only natural to feel that way, right? And it’s not as if I committed a crime, right?
Guilty of Them All
James (2:10-12) tells us that to break one of God’s laws makes us guilty of them all; we can’t classify one sin worse than another. James gives an example: to commit murder is no more a sin than adultery is (v. 11). And what is the context of that example? Showing partiality. To judge according to appearance is to become a judge with evil thoughts (v. 4), to dishonor the poor (v. 6), to commit sin and be convicted by the law as a transgressor (v. 9). We use all kinds of criteria to commit these sins of partiality. Clothing is the one mentioned in James. But there’s also skin color, weight, hair, age, facial appearance, speech, physical disability. Such prejudices are condemned even by our secular society – in theory.
Judging the More Fortunate
James also mentions people of wealth, of distinction, of influence. Deferring to them, giving them the “best seats,” qualifies as partiality. In our culture, few of us have been oppressed or taken to court by the rich (vv. 6-7), but we know Christians who seem to have it all. Do we judge them less “spiritual” than we are? Do we see them as caring too much about the material, and not enough about the spiritual, just because of their larger (than our) houses, or newer (than our) clothing? Is this not also showing partiality – dismissing them as not spiritual or devoted because that’s not how we would define it? Do we want to be judged with that same judgment by someone with fewer financial resources than we have? Would we want to be judged as unspiritual because we buy a new pair of shoes or a new jacket we don’t really need? Judging others by outward appearances – whether they look shabby or polished — is not only partiality but is using the wrong standard of judgment, condemned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-2).
How do we overcome this human tendency? “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” declares James. Kindness, good will, and compassion for all people will make us like our Father (Luke 6:36). May we see each other as God sees us – His children, made in His image. May we see in others what we know about ourselves – that we each have fears, weaknesses, failings, challenges, doubts, strengths, talents, contributions to make to the body – and souls so valuable Christ was crucified for them.