Quarter: Jesus and the Just Reign of God
Unit 3: Live justly in the reign of God
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 9, 2014
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: James 2:1-13
The lessons move to the second chapter of James for the next two weeks. The more familiar scripture about the relationship of faith and works is next week, but first James confronts us with attitudes too common in the church. Remember, we described the letter of James as a “how to” handbook in Christian living. In other words, he is giving us a lesson in practical Christianity.
The issue he addresses is easy to understand – the rich are welcomed and the poor need to know their place in the assembly! Long before Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Christian Church was to practice that fundamental truth that God created all persons equal. This equality was a divine right (inalienable was Jefferson’s word) given by God Himself. Paul described it plainly: there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, bond or free. In other words, the human divisions we create in society are erased with the coming of Jesus.
Jesus himself set the tone for his ministry in his first sermon in Nazareth. The text for that sermon came from Isaiah 61:1-2: “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)
Later in the Sermon on the Mount, the first Beatitude was: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 5:3) or, as Luke states it: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” James recognized what Jesus had said with his questions: “Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the Kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5 CEB) Abraham Lincoln observed that God must love the common people because he made so many of them!
Luke would agree completely with James about the role of the poor in the family of God. His “last, least, and lost” are exactly those who can best show the ways of God to the Kingdom. The very fact of wealth can be a barrier to faith because it is easy to believe, as the commercial said, “we’ve earned it!”
The specific problem James saw in the functioning of the church was the partiality shown to persons of wealth. As we were growing up, segregation by race was a normal pattern in our churches, but there was also another kind of segregation according to wealth. Mary Cullar White was a Methodist missionary to China before and during World War II. After she came home she would visit churches and share her love for the Chinese people. At one prominent Methodist Church in Macon, she gave her talk to the WSCS, as it was called then. Afterward, a large group of women asked what they could do to help. She answered, “Leave all your furs on the table! I’ll see they will do some good!”
Examine your own church. Does it matter who joins? Do you really want your church to have “Open hearts, open minds, open doors?” Who are elected officers? Who heads the committees? The equality James affirms is not blind to the gifts and talents necessary to do the various tasks in the Body of Christ. Paul saw this clearly in the Corinthian letters (Read I Corinthians 12). The concern of James is an attitude: somehow wealth bestows a rank of privilege in the functioning of the church. James is very direct: to do so denies Jesus and the power of his resurrection! (2:1)We, who follow Jesus Christ, cannot be partial, for God shows no partiality. It’s not complicated—it’s just that simple!
The solution to partiality is found in verse 8, where James invokes the Royal Law. As Paul says in I Corinthians 13 (which follows his teaching about spiritual gifts), “the greatest of these is love.” The Royal Law was stated centuries before Christ in Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When asked about the great commandment, Jesus paired Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18, and the lawyer approved of his answer! Then he asked: “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response was the Parable of the Good Samaritan, showing love of neighbor in action. Another show and tell of our Lord!
When you love another with Christ’s love, you are always at eye level. You can neither look up or down at another. Everyone who comes into our lives is on one level, whether rich or poor, bathed or unbathed, impressive or unimpressive. God loves them all equally, and so must we! Indeed, the Church should be the one institution where all are treated the same. All are loved. The lordship of Jesus Christ brings the Holy Spirit into both individual and corporate life. The fruits of the Spirit are equally shared. The unity of the Spirit is visibly demonstrated. All are one in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:28)
James concludes with pairing the words judgment and mercy. Remember, he is writing to Jewish Christians. For them the Law is deeply ingrained into their very being. To violate God’s Law is to be guilty in the judgment of God. But mercy makes a huge difference. The rich Hebrew word “hesed” has many shades of meaning, mercy being one of them. However, there are others. Among them is the word for “alms” – money which is given to the poor. James brings this study to a close with encouragement to show love to neighbor as we share of the wealth given to us. With such acts of mercy we are demonstrating how we love our neighbor. Again, we are practicing the presence of God – a good example of James’ practical Christianity.