James 2:1-10 & 2:14-17
My brothers, don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in, and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing and say, “Sit here in a good place;” and you tell the poor man, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my footstool” haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn’t God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you, and personally drag you before the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the honourable name by which you are called? However, if you fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace. Be warmed and filled;” yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.
Are you Sitting Comfortably?
I’m going to begin with a question which I think may resonate with the older ones among us including me who listened to children’s radio (I think this is where I picked it up) and the question is “Are you sitting comfortably?”
The answer is supposed to be "yes", to which the continuation is "yes, I’ll begin".
Two thousand years or more sitting down during worship is a fairly recent occurrence. For some religions even today it does not happen. We’ve probably all seen pictures on TV Moslems worshipping in Mosques where they are either standing or kneeling and I’ve visited the Mosque in Bahrain and there were no chairs in the worship area.
In Britain from Roman Times and before, through the Medieval and Middle Ages right up to Henry the Eighth and the English reformation with the wholesale destruction of churches and monasteries there is scant evidence of seating being offered on mass to congregations in churches or indeed of any seating at all.
I have a picture of an exception which is a stone seat from the Saxon Church at Beverley Minster in East Riding, Yorkshire. It is called a Frith Stool or Frid Stool which means Peace Chair and it is where somebody who was seeking sanctuary in the church would be invited to sit. It is portable and could be moved to different areas. There may have been others but not enough to seat a whole congregation.
Our reading from James chapter 2 was written several hundred years earlier. It is an extract from one of many letters he wrote to Christian Churches in the Middle East. The translation refers to a meeting place but probably means a church where the tradition of worship would be to stand. So when he accuses the church of discrimination by forcing the poor who are shabbily dressed to stand or sit on the floor but allowing the smartly dressed rich to sit in comfortable chairs he obviously thinks there is some major prejudice and insulting behaviour afoot and even a breach of Christian custom. Well, alright we may think, we see where you’re coming from but it’s only a chair. Is there really a lesson for us in this.
There are two apostles with the name of James in the Bible, one called James The Great who was one of the 12 Apostles and the other commonly known as James the Just who was thought to be a half brother or cousin of Jesus. They are sometimes confused or its impossible to be sure which one is actually writing or being written about in the scriptures. The weight of scholarly opinion seems to suggest that in this case it is James the Just who was half brother or cousin of Jesus.
If somehow he could join us now we wonder what he would make of our arrangements. Leaving aside that his mind would be totally blown so to speak by the technology and might disapprove of sitting down there would be something else. A cursory look at the evidence suggests that in terms of two thousand years the sermon is a fairly recent development. Of course there were always priests and teachers but their lessons were not part of the act of worship. Again this has largely emerged after the Reformation of the fifteenth century.
So James would very likely look in my direction and say “Who’s he? What’s he doing, why is he interrupting things, did you ask him, did you, or you? Mmm, but at least he is standing up, I will say that for him.”
But please remain seated, customs and traditions change over time.
So let us take a quantum leap toward modern times to the Victorian era of the nineteenth century. The Victorians were great church and cathedral builders and left us a very rich heritage all over the country. They were also great designers and builders of the church pew. Here are some examples:
The picture above shows some typical pews which are long wooden benches sometimes covered with a cushion as these ones are and with a back to lean against which also provides a shelf or compartments for the row behind. These are from St Andrews Church, in Hatfield Peverel, Essex.
The next picture, above, shows another design which is a box pew which is found against a wall and usually toward the front. These lend themselves to various designs and the next picture, below, shows one with a nautical flavour from the Old Ship Church in Higham, Massachusetts, USA.
The last example, below, is of a church balcony which is a common feature of the larger Victorian church and contains pews for seating.
So what’s all this got to do with us and today’s lesson. James referred to seating the rich but is there a connection?
When you glance at references to social history you learn that in many of these churches the convention emerged of servants sitting in the balcony while landowners and masters sat downstairs and the greater their wealth and prestige the closer they could sit toward the front.
I read about a similar tradition in American churches where until slavery was abolished in the latter nineteenth century the slaves had to sit in the balcony while the masters sat downstairs.
Now is this getting a bit toward what James is trying to teach and a problem he has foreseen nearly two thousand years earlier. We are all supposed to be equal before God and in church not only in the eyes of God but also in the eyes of the pastor and church council. So how can this be permitted?
Another convention in the UK and maybe elsewhere was that people could rent a pew or even buy a pew though I suspect the latter would be on a leasehold basis which would run out after a few years if not renewed. Studies do show that it was not just the aristocracy or the fabulously rich who would do this. Very often tradespeople or similar ordinary folk would hire or buy pews for the use of themselves and family.
The practice largely came about, or should we say was permitted by the clergy because churches are very expensive both to build and then maintain so this was a good and necessary source of funding. But of course it would become very visible who was paying and who was the richest because the closer to the front the more expensive the pews became. There was no discretion. The poor, who had no money, would have to sit or maybe stand at the back or in the balcony and it would be obvious who they were.
One must be very careful not to jump to false conclusions when looking at history but surely it was no coincidence that it was during our industrial revolution in the nineteenth century when towns and cities expanded enormously with the growth of factories that a lot of Free churches of which we are inheritors came into being. Masses of poor working people felt alienated from the established churches and wanted somewhere to worship and be part of a community where they felt equal, and not the lower end of some sort of social hierarchy which treated them with ‘dishonour’ in the words of James in our reading but perhaps insultingly would be the word they or we might use.
‘And I could have told you that would happen when I lived two thousand years ago,’ James might say if he could speak now. ‘You have to be Christian in every way to maintain a Christian church with it’s congregation and that in short is perhaps his main message to us all
I think there is always something for all of us to learn whatever church we attend even if just revising or updating previous studies. The day you stop believing that is the day you cease to function effectively.
But we must place a proper context on the reading. He is writing a letter to another church in a different era, he is largely talking about behaviour in church and addressing issues specific to them. But such is his breadth of Christian vision that he touches on universal truths and are still relevant to us all.
In verses 1-4 he tells them never to be prejudiced, and to treat everybody equally regardless of appearance or wealth. Making distinctions must come from judgements based on evil motives.
In verses 5-10 he says a bit more: it is the poor who are rich in faith and in possession of God’s Kingdom, I think he certainly means in part that it is by helping the poor that we to become rich in faith with access to God’s Kingdom,
He reprimands them for dishonouring the poor which apart from being unchristian also makes no sense because the poor are not a threat. I personally would include the vulnerable among the poor and on reflection I think he is spot on because although visible and sometimes ugly for want of a better word they have no power. Refugees the homeless, beggars in the street and sometimes I get annoyed with aggressive begging and sometimes I give and sometimes not but none of them can really hurt me. They are not a threat, in general they are the opposite – in need of help,
He warns that in fact it is rich people who oppress them. I don’t think he means all rich people just some but they all have the power to inflict real harm.
How would they know what was the right thing? He quotes what Jesus described as the second greatest commandment as your guide “Love your neighbour as you love yourself
In verses 14-17 his message can be summarised more easily – Faith without action is meaningless. If you do nothing to help the poor and the vulnerable then you have no true faith.
So we all need to constantly reflect. I would add we always need to try and keep an open mind and be aware that we might be ignorant. The danger with this malady called ignorance is that you never recognise the symptoms. You can never be aware of your precise ignorance because by definition we are ignorant of being ignorant.
Going back to balconies and the slaves in the United States. Very likely most of the owners saw themselves as law abiding citizens which on a technicality they were and did not see themselves as being racist at all. To them in their ignorance black people were slaves and that was a fact of life. Many in the 1860s opposed the emancipation of women and thought the natural place for most females was in or around the home doing menial tasks, I doubt if they saw themselves as being sexist or guilty of sex discrimination, they again thought that that was the way of the world, as a last and final example the parents and teachers of 30 or 50 years ago and more who beat children often very hard with sticks and straps and slippers in a way that today would be illegal did not see themselves as being guilty of assault, that was the way you treated children.
But we learn, or try to, though often through mistakes.
How ignorant are we today? What can be our guiding principle for getting round it. As is so often the case you come back to that second greatest commandment
“Love your neighbour as you would love yourself.”