September 5, 2021, Neiman Marcus and the Kingdom of God, James 2:1-4 – guest speaker Carroll Boswell
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Possibly everyone has heard of Neiman-Marcus, though probably none of us here have been in one. It is a luxury department store with its headquarters in Dallas. It caters to the very wealthy. It would be embarrassing to even go into one of them unless you had some real money. But a curious phenomenon has been noticed at the Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. There are a good number of people around Dallas who got rich almost over night when oil or natural gas was discovered on their land. In addition to all the ordinary rich people that you find in any city, there are these rich oil people who were just plain old ranchers a few months before. Being human, they want to flaunt their wealth, but being Texans and formerly poor, they flaunt their wealth with their own unique style. They refuse to dress up in well-tailored suits that are obviously expensive. Instead they flaunt their wealth by going to Neiman-Marcus in old dusty blue jeans and flannel shirts with rolled up sleeves and cowboy hats. The people who managed the store were quick to catch on. It soon became common to see a shabby looking cowboy walk into Neiman-Marcus and all the sales staff hover around them to tempt them with every expensive luxury and grant their every whim. The guys with the fancy suits and ties could wait. The real money was in oil and blue jeans.
What Neiman-Marcus employees were doing was exactly what James was talking about in the reading for today: they were showing partiality. It is easy to see why. They needed customers with a lot of cash to spend on items they didn’t really need, on luxury items. Their business depended on it. This is the way the world works.
James was talking about showing partiality to the rich over the poor, but there are a lot of different ways to show partiality mentioned in other places in the Bible. If you were a boy perhaps you remember your old public school days and going out at recess to play baseball. Two popular athletic kids would be the captains, and they took turns picking their teams from the rest of the kids. Of course, there has to be a kid who is picked last of all, usually the one who is always picked last of all. The captains of the teams are showing partiality to the better players obviously. They want to win the game, of course. It is perfectly natural that they would show partiality and no one blames them for it. Except it is a bit hard on the kids who are always picked last and hear the mutters from their teammates, “Oh, great, we got Carroll again. We’re sure to lose now.” But this is also just the way of the world.
Another example of showing partiality on the scale of our whole society is the veneration we give to celebrities. A celebrity is just a person who got the spotlight for a little while, whom the spotlight makes to look glamorous, classy, living on a higher level than the rest of us. We hang on their every word, their every action, even though we know they are no more authoritative in their opinions than the ordinary people who never get into the spotlight. They have no credentials that make their opinions more trustworthy than ours, they are no closer to being experts, they may not even behave respectably or kindly. The spotlight does not give them wisdom. But it does make the rest of us show them partiality. You’ve notice how in every political campaign, each candidate tries to get the endorsement of some singer or actor because they know people will pay more attention to the popular star than to the facts or the issues. It is the way of the world, and it is not surprising.
The way of the world, yes, but not the way of the Kingdom of God. Let’s read part of James again.
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? “
I suppose the world may or may not be guilty of sin when it shows partiality. Neiman-Marcus set itself up so that it had to show partiality to rich people just to survive. Is that a sin? Or maybe the sin was setting up a store like that in the first place? The baseball captains had to show partiality to win the game. Was that a sin? Or maybe the sin was teaching the kids that winning was more important than people? “Loser” is a difficult nickname to escape, just as “poor” is a difficult situation to escape. But however normal it may be in the world, showing partiality is sin within the church. By the way, other names for showing partiality are “discrimination”, “bias”, “prejudice”.
We are called to straighten out the world, but we can’t do that if our own congregations need straightening out, and if our own hearts straight. I have not personally seen any showing of partiality at St. Philips. (Relax, though. I am not a spy or a spiritual cop always looking out to catch someone in sin). I have not noticed us showing partiality, but it is easy to see how it might happen. Showing partiality is the most natural thing in the world. It is a temptation we must take seriously and it can do a lot of harm. James said that if we make distinctions among ourselves, showing partiality for one kind of people over another, then we have become judges with evil thoughts. It goes against the character of God and of his kingdom. Romans 2:11 says, “God shows no partiality” – Paul was talking about making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles – in other words showing partiality to one ethnic group or race over another. James was talking about making distinctions between rich and poor. There are many ways of showing partiality and they are all sin, they all make us into judges with evil thoughts. When a policeman shows partiality it might be called profiling. A judge or a politician who shows partiality is un-American – he violates our founding principle that all men are created equal. Our government was supposedly designed so that it would not show partiality to one citizen over another citizen; we are supposed to be equal before the law.
In Colossians 3:25, in one of Paul’s last letters, he warned us “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.” In Ephesians 6:8,9 Paul says “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven and that there is no partiality with him.” Now that is a passage which was swept under the rug for hundreds of years in America. I grew up in a land that was chock full of judges with evil thoughts. The Roman form of slavery was not based on race like ours was. It was based on the power of the Roman army to conquer and enslave anyone they could. Our form was much worse. And God will not show partiality to America, as Paul said.
How will the churches I grew up with, who have practiced partiality of white over black for literally centuries, ever escape from the pay back that is coming? I don’t know, but God is always more gracious than we have any right to expect. But our main task is to keep St. Philips from falling into that trap, and it would be so easy to let it happen here. All we have to do is just not pay attention, not keep our eyes on the ball, go with the flow. Partiality is the easiest thing in the world, the most natural thing in the world, so let’s be determined not to conform to that way of the world and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is an important thing and we should take it seriously.
Showing partiality is almost always based on outward appearance, the impression that a person has money or status or respectability, or the impression that they don’t have those things. The distinctions we make are not because of anything that is important in God’s eyes. We make them because we have not learned to see people the way God sees them
And now we should look at Mark 7:24-30
And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at this feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.
So wasn’t Jesus showing partiality for Jews over Gentiles? Wasn’t he doing exactly what James and Paul said we better not do? Isn’t He doing what Paul said God doesn’t do? The answer is, yes, He was showing partiality to the Jews over the Gentiles. In Matthew 15:24 reporting this same event Jesus said it himself, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” It was only after the Jews rejected him that He chose Paul and appeared to him and told him to include the Gentiles. And even when Paul went to a new city to preach, he showed partiality to the Jews, going to them first, and only when they rejected him did he go to the Gentiles. All through the Old Testament God showed partiality to the Jews over the Gentiles. He revealed Himself to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. He protected Israel, not the Gentile kingdoms. He sent the prophets to the Jews, but only once to the Gentiles. He promised a Messiah to the Jews, not the Gentiles.
So what gives? The answer only becomes clear by taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. God showed partiality to Abraham by picking him alone out of the whole world, but while He was showing partiality He also said, “In you all the nations will be blessed.” God’s partiality always had a shelf life. God’s partiality was always intended to cease when the Messiah came and was rejected and crucified. Now we actually all know exactly what this kind of partiality looks like from the inside. What parent among us doesn’t show partiality to his or her own children. We discipline our own children, not the children of others. The Jews were the adopted children of God and God showed them exactly that kind of partiality. But then His adopted children rejected Him and when they did, rather than giving up, He adopted everyone in the world. It was kind of a ridiculous thing for Him to do. It didn’t work out with that kid, He may have been thinking, so I will adopt a billion of them. God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom, and we are supposed to be proof of that.
The world shows partiality for men over women. The world shows partiality for the rich over the poor. The world shows partiality for white people over black people. The world shows partiality for the people in the spotlight over the people in the shadows. The world show partiality for the people who succeed over the people who fail. The world shows partiality for people who are thin over people who are over-weight. These all violate, not only God’s character, but the Law of His kingdom: you shall love your neighbor as yourself demands that we show no partiality – as James went on to say. Showing partiality is illegal in the kingdom of God. In Galatians 3:28 Paul summarized exactly how far God wanted to go to stop us from showing partiality. He said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Let’s be on guard that showing partiality is not allowed to flourish either in our own hearts or in our lives together in this congregation. For God will punish such wickedness, and He won’t show partiality to St. Philips just because we are such good people. Let’s not rest on our laurels, or pat ourselves on the back too long. We are doing fairly well, I think, but let’s do even better.