Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (James 2:1-12) transports me to the world of first class seating, aka the catbird seat, the endowed chair, the captain’s chair, the VIP suite, the luxury box. I can only remember one time when I had the privilege of experiencing this vantage point. We were in Ottowa, Canada, for a Peace Fellowship conference and drove over to Montreal one night to see the Braves play the Expos. It was Dale Murphy’s last season, and we were the only Braves fans in Olympic Stadium. I looked through the binoculars from our nosebleed outfield seats, and spotted Skip Carey there in the press booth. I thought it would be a hoot to try to get in there and speak to him, and let him know how far we had traveled to see Murph and the Bravos. I made my way over there, snuck around a few security folks, and opened the door to what I thought was the press booth. Apparently it was the next room, the luxury suite, complete with tables covered in white linen, bottles of wine, fruit trays, and the like. I paused for a moment to consider my options. The suite was almost empty. I went and sat down at a table, hoping that Kim or one of our friends could see me through the binoculars. A waiter came and took my order. Filet Mignon. I was sitting pretty. When he left, it occurred to me that I might actually have to pay for the food, so I snuck out as stealthily as I got in. The press room door was locked, so I never got to talk with Skip. But I will never forget the incredible view and the sense of privilege that perch afforded.
From today’s passage, we can gather that early church had its version of catbird seats and luxury boxes. The ushers could do a quick assessment of any visitor who entered the house of worship, and know who belonged in the VIP box seats and who could be relegated to SRO status. The clothes were the giveaway: Clean and well tailored – come this way; smelly and threadbare – find a spot on the floor back there in the corner. And so Pastor James does one of those Jesus re-ordering/re-orienting/upset the apple cart kind of moves and tells the ushers that there is no longer a need to have discriminating tastes. There is no longer any need to have a discerning eye. There is no longer a need to be a good judge of people – just treat them all the same. Everybody rides coach. There ain’t no second class on this train. Everybody gets the same view. No partiality. No favoritism. And then I hear one of those screeching brakes/record needle sliding over the record sounds, as James shifts gears and says the reason he’s telling them this is that God has privileged the poor, to make them rich. God has chosen the dirty and the threadbare to measure for royal robes. And he goes on to say how ridiculous it was anyway for the church to have ever bought into the notion that the rich needed special care – after all, it was the rich who were exploiting them, who were oppressing them, who were dragging them into court.
So, is it no partiality or is it partiality toward the poor? It certainly sounds like God is engaged in the latter. God does play favorites. God puts the poor in the catbird seat, and relegates the rich to the SRO section in the back. It is populism at its best, playing to an intuitive belief that the rich are indeed “filthy rich” in God’s eyes, and that God preferences the poor for special treatment. In our day and age when the poor are characterized as lazy schemers trying to beat the system, while rich are characterized as the noble job creators, it might be time to listen again to brother James and look at our seating charts one more time.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith?