By Chuck Griffin LifeTalk Editor
James discouraged favoring the rich over the poor in church. More positively, we might say he encouraged equality in the body of Christ.
We don’t know exactly why James felt the need to offer this warning, but it seems obvious his audience or audiences were struggling with the idea that poor people were as worthy of a place in the congregation as rich people.
It is not surprising early Christians would have struggled with notions of equality. Rigid class distinctions were the norm; the idea that God or any god could care equally for rich and poor was radical.
And James went even further, speaking of the poor as if God actually has a preference for them. “Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him?”
In other words, the poor have something special to offer us—a closer connection to God, one rooted, we can presume, in their deep day-to-day dependence on God. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about the tremendous value of people the world treats as worthless.
When I think of gems hidden among the poor, I think of one encounter I had as a young journalist in Atlanta. It happened while I volunteered with a program for student journalists who produced an independent newspaper for distribution among high schoolers. I was assigned to mentor 16-year-old Lamesha, who lived with her two-year-old daughter and mother in public housing.
I was paired with Lamesha primarily because I had a child about the same age, and could use the car seat already installed in my Plymouth Acclaim to transport the two to the program’s newsroom or training events.
Lamesha, despite all of her difficult circumstances, proved to be an incredibly gifted writer. I still remember vividly one first-person piece she wrote about a drive-by shooting that happened in front of her apartment, a horrific event that left a boy dead on the sidewalk. She captured the facts, emotions and impact on her world with skills far beyond her age and training. I had high hopes for her, imagining her in college and the world of great writers.
And then I went to pick her up one day, and she was gone. I knocked on the door, and there was no answer; I peered through the window, and the apartment looked vacant. I finally found a neighbor who was home.
“They just packed up and moved last night,” she said. She didn’t know why or where. To this day, I don’t know what happened. I pray the skills God put in Lamesha continued to develop somewhere. I fear the instability of her life squashed them.
That is simply a story about what poverty costs society in general. In a Christian community, James is telling us, we also lose much when we fail to recognize the value of the faithful poor among us. They are God’s new chosen people. And while we want to help them lift themselves out of poverty, there is much to learn from the poor.
For example, they know what it means to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” in a sincere way. We who have resources take this prayer less seriously when our only concern is to replace a moldy loaf with a new one.
As they talk about their daily dependence on God, the Christian poor also serve as a corrective for those of us who begin to think our wealth, power or perceived security is a result of our own doing.
Every person has value in a community of faith. Every person. I would like to think the church will learn this lesson so well that the Lameshas of the world one day will no longer be at risk of falling through the cracks.
Lord, may we see the value of every human life, particularly as the poor enter the realm of the church! Amen.