Outside Of Ourselves
Caring for unwanted children, building hospitals and schools, providing financial assistance to needy families, providing food for the hungry and homes for the homeless, advancing literacy, caring for widows, championing the abolition of slavery, advocating the cause of the oppressed, etc. Who has carried the responsibility for these actions? Let me give you a hint – apart from the last century, these services were not provided by any government. These acts of compassion were the acts of the church throughout history.
However, in the 19th century, scholars began, based on an empirical mindset, believing that all that is true can be reproduced and observed in a laboratory, a move away from Jesus as the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God.
By the early 20th century, these scholars moved Christianity away from the historical divinity of Christ. They decided that the gospel was all about serving and loving our fellowman. So these Christians placed their emphasis on demonstrating the love of God to others through acts of service.
In response, other churches, which retained the Biblical divinity of Christ, became suspicious of social action, and determined that their efforts would be exclusively sharing the evangelistic message of the gospel. From that point, many Evangelicals have been suspicious of Christians who attach socially responsible service with a clear presentation of the message of Christ.
But is this divide between acts of compassion and the spoken message a Biblical clash. Listen to the following verses:
“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.” (Exodus 22:21-22)
“Bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the … aliens, the fatherless, and the widow’s who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied.” (Deut 14:28-29)
“Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy…” (Psa 82:3-4a)
God even describes himself as “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Psa 68:5)
Christianity is not an individual faith. Christianity is rooted in moving outside of ourselves – to the oppressed and the powerless. If we are going to go where God desires we will need to move outside of ourselves and move into the lives of others.
“Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us.” (James 1:27)
An unblemished religion is one weds a transformed life with social action – a life outside of ourselves.
“One test of pure religion, therefore, is the degree to which we extend aid to the ‘helpless’ in our world – whether they are widows and orphans, immigrants trying to adjust to a new life, impoverished third-world dwellers, the handicapped, or the homeless.” (Moo, p. 97)
In chapter 2, James provides two illustrations that help to define how we live a life outside of ourselves. The first illustration teaches us that -
1. We need to move outside of our prejudice,
“My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim that you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people more than others? For instance, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in shabby clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’ – well, doesn’t this discrimination show that you are guided by wrong motives?” (James 2:1-4)
NASB – “Do not hold your faith … with an attitude of favoritism”. James’ way of putting the matter makes clear that discriminating against people is inconsistent with true faith in Christ.”
Favoritism, literally ‘receiving the face’, is a Christianization of a Hebrew term for partiality. To ‘receive the face’ means to make judgments about people based on external appearance. What do we call that? – Discrimination.
The space that James devotes to this matter in his letter suggests that discrimination was a problem among his readers.
James applies this principle to differences in dress that reflect contrasting social/economic situations.
“Shabby” is a word from the same root as the word James used in 1:21 to characterize the sinful ‘filth’ that Christians must put off. The image James conjures up is of the typical homeless person in our day, dressed in mismatched, stained, and smelly rags.
“Special attention” can mean simply “look at” but often has the connotation of “look at with favor”, “have regard for”. The situation is clear enough: Christians in positions of some authority in the community are fawning over the rich.
The instructions to “sit at my feet”, literally “sit under my footstool,” is a statement of ridicule. It suggests a conqueror sitting over those who they have defeated.
Prejudice against the poor is in conflict with God’s gracious activity on the part of the poor. In essence, prejudice is a veiled attempt to override God’s actions of grace on the part of the oppressed.
But the Greek word here is plural – “acts of favoritism” – and this makes clear that the prohibition goes beyond fashion sense. It has a wide-ranging application. We are not to make decisions about people based on any external factor – whether it be skin color, body build, or any other aspect of appearance. Neither should we determine how we treat each other based on employment, income, education, etc.
But that is a trap that is awfully easy to fall into, isn’t it?
I don’t make a habit of watching Oprah. However, on January 5, Laira and I were lazing around our hotel room for our anniversary when it came on. The show was about class discrimination based on nothing more than appearances. A waitress said that people assume she is low-class though she makes a middle-income wage at an upscale restaurant, while others thought she was higher-income since she drives a BMW. One lady said, “Someone who is downtown before noon with glitter eye shadow, hoop earrings, red lipstick is obviously low class.” Another said, “When I see someone push their food on their fork with their fingers I know they are low class.”
Here is God’s assessment of the situation:
“Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the kingdom God promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5)
“But if you pay special attention to the rich, you are committing a sin, for you are guilty of breaking the law.” (James 2:9)
By showing favor to the rich and treating the poor with contempt, these believers are acting in direct contradiction to the central demand of God’s law … By discriminating against others, these Christians violate that law and thus put themselves in danger of being judged by it. In effect, their neglect of others in need might verify that they are among those people who are ‘deceived’ about the reality of their own relationship with God (1:26).
The OT repeatedly stresses that God himself is impartial, looking at the heart rather than at the outside of a person, and God’s people are to imitate him in this respect. (see Deut 10:17-18; Lev 19:15, 18).
So as we move outside of our prejudice based on appearance, we move -
Into loving acceptance.
Discrimination against others violates the demand of love for our neighbor, the centerpiece of Jesus’ reinterpretation of the law of God. Look at verse 8:
“Yes indeed, it is good when you truly obey our Lord’s royal command found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (James 2:8)
James may be referring to Jesus statement of the second greatest commandment. However, it is probably more likely that he is going all the way back to Lev 19:18 – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – where just verses before Moses had written “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
Someone once asked, “How many prodigals are kept out of the kingdom of God by the unlovely characters of those who profess to be inside?”
Where that love for one another has to begin is acceptance that reaches beyond personal prejudice.
Acceptance means you value others just as they are. They are not forced into someone else’s idea of who they should be. It means their ideas are taken seriously. They can talk about how they feel inside, why you feel that way, and someone really cares. Acceptance means they can try out their ideas without being shot down. They can even express heretical thoughts and discuss them with intelligent questioning. They feel safe because no one will pronounce judgment on them even though they don’t agree. It doesn’t mean they’ll never be corrected or shown to be wrong. It simply means they safe to be themselves and no one will destroy them out of prejudice.
Here is one way we are inviting some who have been relegated to the corner to come take a seat at the table. Over the past two Sunday, we have included Spanish in the service through announcements and Bible reading. By making that simple adjustment, we are saying to those previously left out, “We value you. We accept you. We want you in the discussion.”
Author and speaker Barbara Johnson writes:
I had just finished speaking at one of the last Women of Faith (WOF) conferences in 1998, challenging the audience to really think "What Would Jesus Do?" in their everyday situations. One way I apply the WWJD principle in my life is by distributing buttons inscribed SOMEONE JESUS LOVES HAS AIDS. A moment after leaving the auditorium, that button would speak volumes.
Running to grab a bite to eat before heading to my book table, the WOF director, Christie Barnes, headed me off. Her eyes were big, and she was talking fast. A prostitute, hiding from her pimp, was upstairs threatening suicide. She insisted on talking to me!
For a moment, I thought Why me? but quickly gathered five women to come with me to the locker room where the prostitute had been taken. A suicide unit, emergency personnel, and police were on their way. Christie filled me in as we walked, concluding with the fact that the prostitute had full-blown AIDS. How will the other women react? I thought. I’m sure they’ve never been near a prostitute, let alone one with AIDS!
She was about 35 years old, dirty, and smelly from sleeping in a dumpster. Her pimp was trying to kill her because she wanted to stop turning tricks. The jagged scar on her face and the bullet hole in her leg were evidence.
The first thing I did was give her the button. As she held it tightly, we talked about how Jesus could give her a new heart and life. Within minutes, she was praying to accept Christ as Savior.
Now began the real WWJD action. One woman scrambled to get soap, shampoo, and towels; another ran upstairs to grab a WOF t-shirt and sweatshirt from the booth. As everyone disappeared, I sat the prostitute on a stool in the shower to start cleaning her up. An inspiration hit me—Maybe while I was scrubbing I could baptize her, too! —But then I saw a fresh gaping wound down her chest.
"We need to get you a doctor," I said.
"No," she insisted. "I just need to get out of town."
By the time we were done (with my head half soaked and frizzing from the shower’s spray), enough money had been scraped together for a bus ticket out of town.
My helpers gathered around us and we prayed. Their genuine love for this woman from the street brought tears to my eyes. The prostitute was in a win-win situation. If the pimp caught her and killed her, she would be safe in the arms of Jesus. If she made it to her family in Chicago, God was giving her a brand-new start. Either way she was a winner!
Someone called a taxi.
"Wait!" she said. "The button!"
Pulling her filthy shirt out of the trash, she removed the button. Proudly, she pinned it on her clean sweatshirt.
We ran outside to catch the cab. Before she rolled up the window, I gave her one last hug.
So we need to move outside of our prejudice – into loving acceptance. But the second illustration teaches us that -
2. We need to move outside of our inoperative faith,
“Dear brothers and sisters, what’s the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions? That kind of faith can’t save anyone. Suppose you see a brother or sister who needs food or clothing [for the day], and you say, “Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well” – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:14-16)
We are to envisage a person inadequately dressed for the conditions; he or she is ‘in rags,’ in need of clothing.
“For the day” might mean that the believer lacked food for that particular day, but it probably means that he or she was habitually underfed, constantly falling short of the ‘daily supply’ of food required to sustain life and health.
The picture James paints comes to life for us in the homeless of our society.
The NIV suggests that the uncaring believer is vaguely encouraging the brother or sister to find clothing and food. But they could also be translated ‘be warmed and be filled” (NASB), perhaps a prayer that God would supply their need.
“It is not the form of the statement that is reprehensible, but its functioning as a religious cover for the failure to act.” (Johnson)
Actually, this response is an improvement on the response of many in the church today – those who would turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the suffering of others – or those who would simply dismiss the person’s need by blaming them for putting themselves in that situation.
In either case, the point is the same: confronted with a need among his own brothers and sisters, this ‘believer’ does nothing but express his good wishes. His faith is inoperative.
When someone claims to have faith, what he or she may have is intellectual assent – agreement with a set of Christian teachings – and as such it would be incomplete, inoperative faith. True faith transforms our conduct as well as our thoughts.
“What good does that do?” That is a good question. Within the illustration, there are two answers:
1) It does no good for the one whose need has gone unmet: words, however well meant, have not profited these needy people, and perhaps have done greater harm, pushing them further from Christ.
2) Secondly, inoperative faith is of no spiritual good for the one who fails to act to relieve the need.
God, in the parable of the Sheep and Goats, will grant entrance into the kingdom on the basis of works of charity, but dismiss from his presence those who fail to relieve the needs of the destitute. Jesus, quoting one of those in need, says: “for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matt 25:42-43)
So as we move away from an inoperative faith, we move –
Into a life of compassionate action.
“So you see, it isn’t enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn’t show itself by good deeds is no faith at all – it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17)
Works will inevitably characterize genuine Biblical faith. Faith is something that is acted out.
We cannot earn our salvation by serving and obeying God. But such actions show that our commitment to God is real. Deeds of loving service are not a substitute for, but rather a verification of, our faith in Christ.
Compassion is not a snob gone slumming. Anybody can salve his conscience by an occasional foray of slopping meals at the soup kitchen.
Did you ever take a real trip down inside the broken heart of a friend? - To feel the sob of the soul – the raw, red crucible of emotional agony? To have this become almost as much yours as that of your soul-crushed neighbor? - Then, to sit down with him – and silently weep? This is the beginning of compassion.
Tony Campolo tells a true story of a Jewish boy who suffered under the Nazis in World War II. He was living in a small Polish village when he and all the other Jews of the vicinity were rounded up by Nazi SS troops and sentenced to death. This boy joined his neighbors in digging a shallow ditch for their graces, and then faced the firing squad with his parents. Sprayed with machine-gun fire, bodies fell into the ditch and the Nazis covered the crumpled bodies with dirt. But none of the bullets hit the little boy. He was splattered with the blood of his parents and when they fell into the ditch, he pretended to be dead and fell on top of them. The grave was so shallow that the thin covering of dirt did not prevent air from getting through to him so that he could breathe.
Several hours later, when darkness fell, he clawed his way out of the grave. With blood and dirt caked on his little body, he made his way to the nearest house and begged for help. Recognizing him as one of the Jewish boys marked for death, he was turned away at house after house, as people feared getting into trouble with the SS troops.
Then something inside seemed to guide him to say something that was very strange for a Jewish boy to say. When the next family responded to his timid knocking in the still of the night, they heard him cry, “Don’t you recognize me? I am the Jesus you say you love.” After a poignant pause, the woman who stood in the doorway swept him into her arms and kissed him. From that day on, the members of that family cared for that boy as though he was one of their own.