Summary: Trying to secure our status in God's sight by checking off a list of church activities won't give us enough credit to get away with looking down on our neighbor.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his autobiography that during his student days he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. "If Christians have caste differences also," he said, "I might as well remain a Hindu."
Now, this was in South Africa, where at the time apartheid was in full sway. Whites and Indians and blacks and people of mixed race were pretty much required to stay to themselves. But we don't have to look too far back in our own history to find exactly the same kind of behavior. And that, to our shame, was after nearly 2000 years of Christian influence! We had at least gotten to the point where we paid lip service to equality. After all, the Declaration of Independence said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." But of course that didn't include blacks for almost another hundred years, and it was another 50 before women got in on the act. But if you think inequality is a problem in the 20th century, be glad you didn't live in the first.
The social structure of the ancient Mediterranean world was incredibly rigid, especially in Rome. Even if you got rich, which wasn't easy and almost always involved fraud or violence, you still wouldn't be accepted by the real upper classes, who had to have birth as well as money to be players. But hey, if you were already richer than 90% of the population, shouldn't that be enough?
Of course not. There is never “enough”.
When Jesus said, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” [Mt 25:29] he was talking about spiritual wealth. But it was equally true - if not more so - in the earthly realm. The richer you were, the more free food you got on public feast days.
The only way to get any power was to buy your way into the lowest rung of the recognized elites. From there you could buy your way into public office. But before you could even take the first step in this process you had to suck up to somebody who already had power. Excuse me. I mean, the first step in this process was to become a client of someone a few steps above you, who could - if he wanted to - grease your way on your upward climb. Obsequiousness was a not only a virtue, it was a survival technique. And no one thought it was wrong. Clients were expected to display their dependence on their patrons by public displays of flattery. Plutarch wrote, "Most men think themselves robbed of their wealth if they are prevented from displaying it." And if you couldn't get power and status and recognition any other way, you might join a trade association, or become a patron of a religious organization.
There was no other route to self-esteem except through public recognition. As theologian David Nystrom says, "the pervasive nature of this hunger for prestige is difficult to overemphasize." The great Roman orator Cicero said, "Rank must be maintained." And woe to anyone who even considered trying to go against this tide.
As rigidly stratified as European social structures were at the beginning of the last century, the sign "Abandon all rank, ye who enter here" was posted on the rest homes behind the lines in World War I. They were open to enlisted and officers alike. Our culture has rank, and status, and prestige. We crave our fifteen minutes of fame, and the rich give buildings to towns and universities on the condition that their names be chiseled in granite over the doors. We cling to our symbols. But a sign eliminating rank would not even have been possible, in the world which James and his congregation lived.
But before we start patting ourselves on the back for having made so much progress in the last two millennia, people are still the same now as they were hen. We still measure ourselves by largely external standards, and almost everyone can identify a group of people they can look down on.
Everybody seems to have to look down on someone else.
As a line from “A Merry Minuet” goes, "Albanians hate the Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, and I don't like anybody very much."