It’s amazing to see how many doors a wheelchair can open. To be sure, a family member who uses a wheelchair is, even today, restricted in many ways. But there are other opportunities that compensate – like the first class coach on the new Great Western trains to London.
There is much excitement if our train that pulls into Chippenham is a big sleek green class 800. For the only wheelchair spaces are in the First Class coach. Even if you paid standard, wheelchair users get to travel First, and often the whole party travels together with the disabled passenger. So we all get enjoy the big comfy seats, the extra leg room, the complimentary coffee and biscuits, the refined atmosphere of peace and quiet – or at least it was until the Bryan family arrived.
Part of the enjoyment is that it feels like a freebie. In this country we’re used to getting different levels of service depending on how much you pay. So if you get an upgrade, it’s something to celebrate! Culture widely accepts that if you are willing to pay more, you can get more. And I suppose if someone wants to pay £25 extra for a cup of coffee on the way to Paddington, then why not? In fact, you could argue that if airlines didn’t charge astonishing prices for business class, they’d have to raise the cost of economy to compensate. I bet you’d never thought of British Airways as a mildly socialist form of wealth redistribution!
We’re used to money talking. As were the people of New Testament times. But the reading we’ve just heard from the letter of James brings us up short. Imagine, says the writer, a noteworthy benefactor comes to church and is made a great fuss of. At the same time someone sleeping rough slinks in, and is put out of harm’s way at the back. ‘Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges?
It’s particularly ironic because v.5 hints that many of the people in the church James was writing to were poor themselves – they were the ones who had been chosen by God. If anything, God has particular concern for those who are poor because they are starting from a disadvantage. God seeks justice. The recipients of James’ letter were fawning over the rich – yet v. 6 indicates that wealthy people were oppressing the Christians and taking them to court. In response, James quotes the saying of Jesus: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Rich or poor, treat as you’d like to be treated. v.9: ‘If you show partiality you commit sin’.
What then does it mean to show partiality? What kind of fair treatment is envisaged? How do we enact justice today?
Are there times when the ability to pay more is just part of life’s variety? Part of a healthy economy which enables people to make choices about what they spend their money on? Are there times when that’s basically harmless? And when is it not?
For instance, some say it’s wrong that you can buy a better education for your children. Others retort: I’ve paid my taxes to fund education, if I want to pay again then why not? …What about healthcare? My own father benefitted from the private health insurance provided by the Civil Service. When he needed a back operation he could have endured pain for months, or he could have seen the same surgeon within a week. At one level it’s a no-brainer, yet would it be fairer to use society’s resources to improve outcomes for all?
Perhaps when we think about a particular example we should ask: is this a zero-sum game where allowing a few to buy better service reduces the opportunities available to others? Or is a given example part of a symbiotic diversity where the process of creating steak also creates sausages? And what effect does inequality itself have on people’s wellbeing? Research suggests that the wider the gap between the richest and poorest, the less happy and stable that society will be.
Clearly, whether we’re dealing with First Class or Economy, a Christian should look beyond the ticket and treat each person as a fellow human being. Not diminishing their significance, polite to all.
It is particularly important in the church. For the Christian faith teaches that all people have been created equal. God is Father to us all. We have all equally sinned – as v.10 says if we keep all the law but fail at any one point we become a law-breaker. No matter how upright our morality, if we do make distinctions and judgements in the way James describes, we still end up breaking God’s perfect law. The Christian faith calls us to honesty and realism : none of us is better than any other because although we were all created in God’s image, each one of us has marred that image through the various things we have done wrong.
Yet the good news is that Christ came to offer all of us salvation. Just as we are all equally in need, so healing is offered equally. Jesus bore the sin of every person, so that we could be equally restored when we ask him to forgive us. In the church we are therefore all redeemed sinners – and we are all destined for the same glory – there are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Of course churches are made up of broken human beings, they are hospitals for sinners on the way to being saints. So, as we are all on a journey of transformation, we do still see hierarchies, power plays and all the rest. Yet with a little effort, churches can become signs of the Kingdom of God, pointers to a deeper, inclusive reality. I know a church near here which has grown from a small handful to a regular fifteen because everyone who comes is accepted for who they are.
The steps we can make are quite simple: for instance I make a point of not knowing who gives how much to the church. Otherwise it would be easy for the Vicar to think, I’d better listen to so and so, he’s a generous donor. Or person Y is always making a fuss but never puts her money where her mouth is. I don’t want to be thinking those things, so only our Treasurer knows who gives what.
James told a story about seats, because where you sit matters. If visitors get the feeling that they might put a foot wrong, they can easily feel excluded. For the same reason I’m a little wary of processions – those carefully choreographed sequences of various ministers and robed bigwigs – can easily send a message of knowing your place, of people who are and aren’t important.
Positively, the church can be a great witness. The Parish Share system, where wealthier parishes support those who are worse off, is a wonderful sign of the Kingdom in action.
When Chantal wrote in Jonathan’s book about how the local church responded to a family crisis and filled our freezer within an hour, the publishers who read it were astonished. That kind of practical help can be a really powerful witness and example to our society. For when we don’t show partiality but do love one another in practical ways, we live out our faith and make it clear what we believe.
Real faith is practical. James imagines another picture. What good is it, if one of you sees a brother or sister without adequate clothing, who doesn’t have enough to eat, and says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill.’ If you don’t also supply their bodily needs, then those are empty words. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Here James seems to be correcting a misunderstanding of St Paul’s teaching. In Romans and Galatians Paul teaches that we are put right with God, or justified, because of God’s mercy to us. We don’t get into heaven by doing more good things than bad things! It’s because Jesus gave himself on the cross that we can return to God. Faith is when we accept what Jesus has done for us. But some people seem to have been saying that if you have this faith, you can do what you like. James corrects this misunderstanding: how can it be real faith if it doesn’t also affect the way that we live? How could we be serious about following Jesus if we didn’t allow the Holy Spirit to change us for the better? Real faith is lived out.
James is not giving us a complete theology of social action here. What to do in a particular situation involves a lot of practical wisdom. James’ point is much simpler yet also profound. He cuts to the heart of the matter: don’t just believe, act. Show your faith by what you do. Be consistent – treat people equally in accordance with what you believe. Live out your faith in practical love, that way you will know it is real.