Thursday of week 6 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on James 2:1-9

There is some very straight speaking from James today and there will be few of us who will not feel a twinge of conscience as we read or listen.

He begins by reminding us that our faith in, our commitment to Jesus Christ means that all forms of favouritism or discrimination must be removed from our hearts.  God himself shows no favouritism.  “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:45-48).

He gives a very practical example in the way that the rich and powerful are treated in contrast with the poor and uneducated.  The scene is the place where Christians meet.  The word used is ‘synagogue’.  James is writing to Jewish Christians so it is possible they may even have still been attending Jewish synagogues, or it may be his word for the Christian ‘assembly’ for liturgical worship.  The word ‘synagogue’ (from the Greek sunagwgh) literally means a place where people gather together.

Two people walk into the Christian assembly at the same time.  One is rich and well-dressed, the other is poor and shabby.  The rich person is treated with a great deal of respect and deference while the poor person is ignored or shoved into a corner.  A very similar situation is described very critically by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.  For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk… Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?… For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves” (1 Cor 11:20-21,22,29).  Have we not seen this happen umpteen times?  Have we not done something like that ourselves?  Do we not associate wealth with respectability and poverty with fecklessness and crime?  When we act like this, James asks, are we not practising discrimination and setting ourselves up as judges purely on the basis of external appearance?

James then gives three arguments against our bias towards the materially rich.  The third reason does not appear in our reading.  The three reasons are:

1. the rich persecute the poor – who are specially loved by God;

2. favouritism violates the royal law of love and thus is sin;

3. favouritism will be judged.

From 1, “in God’s eyes are not the poor called blessed” (happy, fortunate)?  They have nothing to give but everything to receive.  They have no sense of self-sufficiency which the rich can sometimes boast of, thinking they are independent.  “‘Lucky man!  You have all the good things you need for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!’ But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?’” (Luke 12:19-20)  Yet, it is the poor that we look down on and treat so badly.

But Paul told the Christians of Corinth: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:28-29). It is a fact that the Christian faith originated from people who had no power or status in their society.

The poor, as poor, have nothing to be ashamed of; the rich, as rich, have nothing to boast about.  The poor may be poor materially but they can be rich in faith.  And, of course, in the kind of situation James calls for in this letter, their real needs will be taken care of.

In 2, “Are not the rich oppressing you?” are not those very people we treat with such courtesy, the rich and powerful, the ones who really exploit us?  How come so many of them become rich in the first place?  Often by taking and keeping to themselves what in justice belongs to others.  In the Scripture that is the real definition of a rich person – not just one who has a lot of material wealth, but one who holds on to that surplus wealth while surrounded by many who are denied the most basic needs.

“Do they themselves not haul you off to court?”  They are the people who can afford the big lawyers to crush their opponents and use every legal technicality to avoid punishment for their own most serious and damaging behaviour?

Is it not the rich “who blaspheme the noble name that was invoked over you”?  In the Old Testament the name of Yahweh pronounced over someone dedicated him to the divine protection.

Also from today’s Gospel, it is the poor, the needy, the unjustly deprived who have God’s name over them.  But it is a protection the possessive rich do not recognise, although they are the ones most in a position to give it.

It is for all of us then to observe the “royal law”: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  It is called ‘royal’ because it is the supreme law that is the source of all

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