While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Sleeves Rolled Up
I think that James was writing to his century’s equivalent of a middle class congregation.
The people he is addressing are in the middle: between the rich person with the gold rings and fine clothes and the poor person with dirty clothes and no adornment at all.
There is a natural tendency to be deferential to a wealthy person; who knows, maybe they will be generous to you; or some of their glamour will rub off and your friends will be impressed.
There is a natural tendency to be dismissive of poorer folk; perhaps out of fear that we might be associated with them; or even slip and fall into their ranks; or maybe the “great unwashed masses” are too smelly; or we fear that they somehow earned their poverty by being less good, or less able.
It may be the simple fact that we aspire to become richer and fear becoming poorer. None of this is logical, some would even call it superstitious.
James didn’t invent the understanding that faith without works is dead. He just put it into its most quotable form.
James is clearly following the many teachings of Jesus that are very practical in nature. And going back even farther, he is part of that tradition represented in our Proverbs lesson which points out that God created both rich and poor alike; that radical notion that we are all equal in the sight of God.
First century Christians knew well that we are not all equal in the eyes of society and the congregation that first received James’ letter was following society’s standards. They were not going so far as to keep the poor people out with an entry fee or exclusive membership, but they were still making distinctions.
That is what James is objecting to because it ignores that basic idea that God made us equal, and that we remain equal.
He was not demanding what our modern service industry demands,
where staff are ordered to treat all customers as honoured guests. The customer is not always right as shown by the increasing need
to remind people not to abuse the staff. This is not about the interpretation of Christianity that requires us to become doormats.
What James is talking about is at the core of Jesus’ teachings: it is about respect. Not respecting status, or income, or someone’s place in any hierarchy but respecting each person as a person, as a child of God, regardless of their outward appearance or the status they have in society.
It includes a demand that the other person show respect too, so that there is no servant and guest dynamic, but a place where the members of the community all belong together and more than that, help each other out, making sure that no one goes hungry or freezes.
James’ practical emphasis becomes obvious when we apply the language of respect: if you respect someone, would you watch them starve?
James is giving us a good, basic way to apply the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus talked about the first being last and the last being first; which could be taken as permission to target rich and powerful people for disrespect. This remains a temptation for some people trying to create justice.
But Jesus taught us ways to level the uneven ground, to take away the advantage of the powerful, to force the oppressor to take the weaker person seriously, to look at them as real people – not some lower category to be used and discarded.
Remember that injunction to go the extra mile? If someone forces you to carry their burden one mile, carry it two instead?
The Roman army had strict rules for its soldiers. They could force someone from an occupied country to carry their burden exactly one Roman mile – no further. When someone carried it two miles, it put that bully of a soldier in the person’s power because the soldier’s commanding officer would enact serious punishment on a soldier who abused this power. After all, Rome wanted to avoid unnecessary rebellions – the Pax Romana was built on strict rules as well as a powerful army. The soldier could no longer look at the person as a kind of pack mule; he’d have to see them as a human with some built-in dignity instead of just ordering them to pick up the pack and carry it 1000 paces (the usual measure). He might have to walk alongside and beg them to stop before his sergeant noticed the extra distance.
Similarly, the call to turn the other cheek is a call to claim respect as well. The person who struck someone else on the cheek would use a slap; an open blow, like a master hitting a slave. It’s a disrespectful way of putting someone “in their place”.
To turn the other cheek is to invite the same person to hit with the back of the hand, with the knuckles, whether in a fist or an open back-handed slap. It is a much more aggressive blow. It’s like an invitation to a fight: it’s something you would do to someone you wanted to challenge, not someone you considered your inferior. It is, again, a demand for respect.
Jesus talked to people under Roman occupation and gave them a way to regain their dignity peacefully; to demand to be seen as human; to have at least some basic respect.
James took this and applied it to the community of faith in a way that requires us today to examine ourselves and see if we really understood the core of Jesus’ words.
If we cannot treat the people in our own gatherings with equal respect, as children of God, then we have missed the point. Jesus didn’t limit this to people within the faith community and I doubt James would, either.
On this Labour Day weekend, we might see it as a call to respect the people who have to roll up their sleeves to work, or a call to ourselves to roll up our sleeves and make our faith a living thing, beyond a set of beliefs, that provides actual help to real people.
And all of that would be right, as far as it goes. But if we stop there, we don’t go far enough. This call to treat everyone respectfully and to call others to treat everyone with respect is so basic to Jesus’ teachings that it should be part of every interaction of our lives.
When we support the work of our Outreach committee we do some of this: supporting practical ministries and programs that help people get out of poverty or abusive situations, or other troubles; or that work to require that those with power stop looking at people as tools, as objects to be used in pursuit of a goal and then be discarded when the goal is achieved.
But it is personal too: Our calling is to be the children of God, sharing creation with God’s other children and respecting the people and creation itself in the process.
Can we do this? Can we look at the person in front of us and respect them and insist that they respect us no matter our differences in beliefs, status, cleanliness, or sanity?
Can we challenge the ideas we use to write people off and find ways to respect them instead?
If we can do that, we will be well on the road to making Christianity as real in our lives as it should be.