Honor the poor?
Seldomly do you see the words “honor” and “poor” in close relationship to each other. We typically give honor to those who are “deserving”: our service men and women and those who teach, heal, and care for our world in various ways. Honor, to give regard with great respect, comes to those who, in some way, make doing the work of Christ (even if they’re not calling it that) of prime importance.
I do believe, however, that we have a longstanding tradition of honoring those who do not deserve it. We give them preferential treatment because of who their mama or daddy may be or if we know that they can help us secure that new business deal. We strive to attend their parties and buy the same fashions they wear because in the back of our minds we believe that what they have to offer us is much more valuable than someone who does not have that same level of influence.
And as a result, we push away those who are poor — whether that is in spirit or as a result of some other life situation such as homelessness or joblessness and we force them to sit in the back and remain hidden. Conversations with them are few and far between because they cannot give us what we want. They do not have the power to influence or to “change the game”. They are poor, with nothing to offer.
Yesterday, I read James chapter 2 where the writer is warning the early church against partiality. For James, honor was something that was bestowed by God and not the result of some superficial or external criteria. Showing partiality or favoritism to people simply because of their status, notoriety, or hefty bank account was an issue because it was a direct reversal of Jesus’ teachings about the poor. Superficiality in bestowing honor, for James, proved to be problematic because the people had forgotten Jesus’ high regard for the poor and their role in the Kingdom of God. (See Matt. 5:3, 22:39)
James positions their actions below:
For if a person comes into your congregation whose hands are adorned with gold rings and who is wearing splendid apparel, and also a poor [man] in shabby clothes comes in, and you pay special attention to the one who wears the splendid clothes and say to him, “Sit here in this preferable seat!” while you tell the poor [man], “Stand there! or, Sit there on the floor at my feet!”
Are you not discriminating among your own and becoming critics and judges with wrong motives? (James 2:2-4)
Notice what the text says: it says that when they showed partiality towards the rich and shunned the poor, they in turn created distinctions among themselves. This, my friends, is how you can have a church (or any entity for that matter) with cliques, factions, and divisiveness! The practice of treating people with preferential treatment becomes a part of that community’s social and ethical fabric. They begin picking each other apart, giving more honor to those who can write bigger checks and bring in bigger names than those who can only give their time or good side hug. Check this out: the “among your own” may be a call out to the people in the congregation: “you are just as poor as he, so why you acting funny??”
What I love the most about James’ warning is that he reminds the church that the same people they bestow with pseudo forms of honor are the same ones who dismiss and oppress them:
Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:6-7)
I think about this scripture as we begin to celebrate Thanksgiving and the forthcoming holidays. How have we shifted the way we show honor? Is it true in spirit, bestowed to those who are deserving or have we become misaligned with the hopes of attaining a false sense of belonging?
The same retailers who pay poor wages to their workers, offer no health insurance or utilize child labor in foreign countries will be the same retailers who will be “honored” with our wages this holiday season. The same banks and businesses who use discriminatory practices against people of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community will relish in the “high esteem” we will give them as we spend our hard-earned cash on those who, in many ways, act as oppressors.
To be clear, I am not anti-shopping, capitalism, or social commerce; these things are just embedded in who we are as a society. I am however, anti-partiality. I am against turning away from those people who have nothing to offer for the sake of those who only offer us enough to keep us baited and waiting for the chance to grasp at straws.
What I found extremely crazy was that James attributed those who showed partiality to those who had transgressed the law “love your neighbor as yourself” and suggests that the people offer inextricably ties our ability to show mercy to those who need it to God’s ability to show mercy to us when we need it (and God knows we will need it!)
There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. (James 2:13)
So this holiday season (and until forever), let’s be mindful of the poor. Let’s be mindful of our motives and the ways in which we bestow honor? Is it justified or fueled by an insatiable need to get what we want at any cost?
On the honorable chase,
“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” — Malcolm Forbes