“My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others.” –James 2:1
Have you ever felt like an outsider? It is an awkward feeling, isn’t it? As a young pastor I once went to make a hospital call on one of my parishioners. He was having a procedure done at a large downtown hospital in the city near where my church was located. I had never been there before. I parked my car and walked into the hospital like I had done at several hospitals before. But there was something very different about it. You see, I became very much aware that in the time it took me to go into the hospital and find my way to the unit where my person was located, on this particular day, I saw no other Caucasian persons – I was the only one. Every person I encountered was African-American. Now, mind you, I had African-American friends and had spent considerable time around many of them. But I had never been in this situation before in my life, where I was the minority – and it was awkward. Everyone else seemed to be okay with me being there and showed me respect, but it was still weird. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in the midst of that experience: “So that’s what it feels like for my African-American friends!”
Now imagine being a visitor to a church worship service. Picture with me that you are a just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy. You have never been to this church before. You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. What are you thinking? What do you see? “Wow, that building is really big! I don’t know anybody here.” Yet, the visitor works-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the big building. The inner dialogue is going on: “Where do I go? Will anybody notice me? How am I supposed to act? Are my kids going to be okay? Where do I sit?” All the things we never think about and take for granted are at the forefront of this visitor’s mind. You see, not everyone thinks like we do – and that is the point. If we are only attentive and aware and care about people who look just like us, think just like us, and act just like us, then we are playing favorites and have become judgmental persons who cannot be trusted with the things of God.
Discrimination of people based on our limited understanding of them is soundly condemned in Scripture. “To show partiality is not good,” says Proverbs 28:21. The Apostle Peter had to get the insider-outsider mentality out of his head and heart concerning Gentiles. It took a series of visions from God himself for Peter to get this testimony into his life: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34). Even people who are socially and economically in an inferior position are to be treated well. Paul told masters not to play favorites and look down on their slaves. “Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” (Ephesians 6:9). And if that were not clear enough, Paul flatly stated to his young protégé, Timothy: “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels… to do nothing out of favoritism” (1 Timothy 5:21).
Favoritism is a big deal to God and he soundly condemns it because with him there ought never to be star-bellied Sneetches in the church who look down on those without stars on thars! A poor woman once wanted to join a church. She went to the pastor, and he told her to pray about becoming a member. The pastor did not see the woman for months and then one day met her on the street. He asked her if she had been praying and what she had decided about joining the church. She said, “I did what you asked me to do, and one day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting into that church – I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!’”
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society just as he did with the rich and influential. They were all just people who needed God in their lives. The church is the consummate expression of God when it follows Jesus to the least and the lost, as well as the movers and shakers, and invites them all into its total life.