As you might imagine, I often get into conversations about religion. Religion is a big topic this day inside the church and outside of the church. Religion is a big topic in history, politics, and everyday life. People love to discuss religion, but not many want to drill down into the essence of what is going on.
I have mentioned before that any study of scripture or religion requires context. Sure, I can find almost any verse that suits my position, and if I cannot find a verse, I can find a translation of that verse. But, for example, there have been many questions raised this past week about when life begins and what scripture has to say about it.
The only place in the bible that I know of that even remotely discusses the topic is Genesis’s first book. When God is creating everything and calling it, good God does so by speaking it into existence. God separated the light from the darkness; God separated the water from the land; God created the creepy crawly things, etc. But when it comes to the creation of humanity, God gets his hands dirty.
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The breath of life is often referred to as ruach, the very essence of God.
Let’s look at that again, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Same God, same creation, same breath, different outcome. In this translation, man becomes a living soul.
The first translation is from the New International Version, and the second is from the King James. Same verse, different meaning.
This is not a discussion of when life begins, but I use this verse as a way of showing how scripture can be manipulated to prove a certain point; in fact, I just did it. I picked two verses out of the thousands to prove my point about getting past the surface of scripture. Just as a final point on these verses, the bible is not a science book; if you want answers to science questions, talk to a scientist, not a theologian.
The Book of James is what I call practical theology. There are two types of theology, practical and theoretical, and both are important, and both feed into and off each other. James takes all the complexity of scripture and boils it down into what is essential. James writes to the universal church, not a particular church as Paul does. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem and the brother of Jesus, gives very practical advice on living our spiritual life.
Before we get to the verses we heard today; we need to back up to the final verse of the previous chapter where James lays it all on the line. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” To put this into modern language, take care of everyone, love everyone, and do what is right.
James echoes the Sermon on the Mount in so many ways. The essence of what James writes about is that if we call ourselves Christians, if we say we follow Jesus, then we need to act like it. We cannot come here to worship today, sing songs, listen to a wonderfully inspired message, receive the “living bread come down from heaven,” and then treat others like property and not care for those on the margins on Monday. Our faith should move us to action when we see people being mistreated. Our faith should move us to fight for equality of everyone regardless of gender, skin color, or who they happen to love. Our faith should move us to compassion for those suffering here and around the world. And our faith should give us empathy and a willingness to help others. It is not enough to just sit here and worry about ourselves.
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” (v 2:1)
We must not show “favoritism.” A better word is partiality; we must treat everyone as equals. James uses the story of a rich person and a beggar coming into the assembly, the church. How will we treat them? James says we should treat them as equals because they are. To treat them any differently would be to show partiality.
The worth of another human being does not come from their material possessions or their position in life. The value of a human being comes from God at that moment that God breathes the breath of life into their nostrils. The worth of a human being comes from being created in the image and likeness of God, not from a physical point of view since God has no physical form but from a spiritual point of view. Therefore, when we look at another person, we should see Christ in that person whether we like them or not.
Throughout history, the basis of every problem has been that one person sees another person or group of people as less than they are. Treating someone as inferior or subhuman leads to things like slavery, misogyny, white supremacy, religious superiority, and all the rest. It leads to racism, sexism, classism, and all of the other “isms” in society.
If we strip away another’s humanity, it gives us a license to treat them as non-humans. Striping away the humanity of another allows us to treat them as property rather than humans, and therefore they do not have the same rights that we have. Classifying people by their actions, criminals, illegals, addicts, deviants, or whatever term you want to use allows us to feel better about how we treat them.
James would say, and I am saying that if you believe this way, you are not an authentic Christian and follower of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of Mark that we heard, Jesus is approached by a woman of a different background than Jesus. The “devil has taken the woman’s daughter,” and she does not know what to do with her. So she asks Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) In other words, he is telling her to go away, you are not of my people, and I cannot help you. Remember, this is Jesus saying this. The woman, being a strong advocate for her daughter, calls Jesus out for this.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) The woman rebukes Jesus, and he heals her daughter. The story is being used to illustrate the idea that we are to show no partiality. We are to help all we can, regardless of where they come from, their legal status, color, religion, or whom they chose to love. We care for them because we are them, and they are us.
In Hinduism, there is a greeting that one gives to another when they meet. Hands clasped in front of you and a slight bow of the head while saying “Namaste.” The literal translation of Namaste is “the divine in me greets the divine in you” and is a recognition of our mutual creation. Thus, there is respect and an acknowledgment of the divine in the other person that begins every encounter.
In the creation story, God creates humanity; there is no gender; there is only humanity in the beginning. God breaths the “breath of life” into all of humankind after God created that humanity from the very dust of the earth with God’s own hands. Who are we to disrespect that?
Friends, the bottom line is that Jesus commands us to love everyone without exception, including our enemies. We are to forgive 70 times 70, and we are to care for all. This is what makes us true and faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.“