James 2, 1-10 and 14-17 What does it mean to be poor
Dear congregation, for today’s sermon I would like to draw on the text of the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James? We, as united-methodist congregation, should deal with one of the 7 catholic epistles? An epistle, which Martin Luther once called an „epistle of straw“, one that doesn’t have any protestant characteristic at all.
To begin with I would like to discuss this criticism and later turn to today’s main topic, what it means to be poor or what it could mean to be poor. Who is poor and who is rich? What meaning for our own personal belief can we take from this question?
Let’s start with the “epistle of straw”. The term epistle is derived from Latin and the Greek word for “letter”. Luther is thus referring to the Epistle of James. And I think that we can only understand or reasonably relate to Luther’s derogatory comment, if we mentally transfer ourselves all the way back to the beginning of the reformation and also look at Luther’s very personal path of life, sort of his own martyrdom. Luther lives in the Middle Ages, a time in which the concepts of hell and devil, purgatory and the sale of indulgences were commonplace. And Luther is a part of it and driven by this fear that he will never be able to satisfy God with what he does or is able to do. At the same time, he recognises that money, for a letter of indulgence for instance, can hardly be the solution to his problem, the question of a merciful God. And in this situation, he discovers the redemptive message in the Epistle to the Romans, of the justification by faith alone, by grace alone.
This relief, this salvation, which he experiences himself, then becomes the driving force for his further course of action and his fight against the sale of indulgences. And in this situation, in which it is about contrasting the sale of indulgences with something else, a personal belief which exists through the justification by God and not by the church, in this situation the Epistle of James doesn’t really fit in with his plans. Because he faces his credo seemingly by faith alone and by grace alone.
Today we can be quite relaxed when looking at the Epistle of James and see it as a precious warning that our faith may never be or become just a lip service. But as it were, Luther is heading a reformation, a renewal movement of the church, which is going to unsettle Europe and needs tremendous strength. A certain stability and unambiguity. In this situation it might not become more appropriate, but more understandable that he dismissed the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw”.
Today we can read or hear the Epistle of James as a diaconal letter, which reminds us that faith also ought to have an impact, otherwise it will remain spiritless. But – and here I will put Luther into the limelight one last time – the good work is the consequence of faith, which follows Gods good actions toward us and is not a prerequisite. To put it more simply: God loved us first. We didn’t have to do anything, it was, and it is his grace through which we are saved. But then, what happens then?
This is where the Epistle of James comes in with one of its central messages when it enunciates what we have heard before: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without enough clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them: »I wish you well! Hopefully you will keep warm and well fed!«, but you don’t give them what they need – what use is it to them? It is the same with faith: If it is not accompanied by actions, it is dead; it is dead, because it has no impact.”
And that brings me to today’s main topic, which is addressed in several places in today’s “epistle”. What does it mean to be poor or rich? Associated with that is a similar question: Who is poor and who is rich?
First, there is the fictitious example: Suppose a rich and a poor person attend your church service. How do you treat the one and the other? Above all, your belonging with Christ should urge you to not be bothered by a person’s status and reputation when interacting with them.
That raises a number of questions for me. On the one hand the question, how would it take place now and today in our congregation? Suppose two people are joining – probably late and only after the first or second song – our church service. One is a rapper in a designer outfit, with tons of gold necklaces around his neck and other bling bling, and the other is a ragged tramp, smelling of urine. Both are given a hymn book by Abraham and probably – if the best places in our church are not already taken – sit down in the second last row. What would the conversation be like when we have coffee after the church service?
The other question that comes to my mind concerns the trust in my own judgement. Am I able to treat people without prejudice, without paying attention to their status or their appearance? Do I think “clothes make people” or “don’t judge a book by its cover”. This is indeed a question which we have to answer multiple times a day in our daily lifes.
The most important question though which I ask myself in the light of this account and the following accounts, is whether we have too much of a focus on a materialistic world view, one that does not do the biblical aspect justice, when we are dealing with the issue of being poor or rich.
August Everding, a German film director, who studied the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, writes: “Materialistic poverty or a socially lower status, which is accompanied by a money grabbing attitude, does not guarantee a place in heaven. If one considers lack of possessions as the only possible form of poverty, one ought to put up with the accusation of having a materialistic understanding of the world.”
What Everding accomplishes here is the essential differentiation between a lack of possessions and an attitude of the mind. That we can also understand poverty as a matter of attitude, which makes people expect nothing from themselves but everything from God. Here, poor is he or she who is not “possessed” by anything. She or he is thus free and open for God and his kingdom. Not possessed by anything. Not in terms of being crazy or insane, but in terms of being free, not being dictated by worry about possessions, the worry about earthly wealth. Not being possessed.
With this background then, perhaps the verse that we have heard today takes on a different meaning: “Listen up, my dear brothers and sisters! Hasn’t God just chosen those who are poor in the eyes of this world, to become rich through faith? Hasn’t he just made those the heirs of his kingdom, heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? What I interpret from this text is an appreciation of the poor people in this world. It renders them into active role models instead of passive needy people.
In other words: The poor may have a better chance of appreciating the important things in life. The hungry person knows what a piece of bread is worth, and the lonely person knows how to value the smile of a friend. One who has everything is more prone to belief that he or she doesn’t even need God. But what we shouldn’t conclude from all of this, in my opinion, is the following: Neither is it about glorifying poverty, nor is it about ostracising the rich.
A misinterpreted, inappropriately euphemised description of poverty would be to say: “Okay, be happy to be poor. You are the heir of God’s kingdom, that’s great, enjoy it.” That is mean and comes from an oddly offended, rejection anticipating mind-set. God, you don’t love me, you only love the poor. No.
I think Don Medardo Gomez, Lutheran bishop from Central America, sums it up pretty well. He writes: “Because God chose the poor first, according to the gospel the poor chose God. But his liberating message goes much further. It concerns everyone, also the rich. That’s why my church stands in for a “theology of life”. Its guiding principle is a special kind of attention for those who need it most. That means it is a theology that explains that God loves the rich just as he loves the poor. But his priority is to attend to the poor because they are in greater need.
- Luther’s disregard for the Epistle of James may be related to his time period, his life and his mission. Today things are very different, and the Epistle of James reminds us that our faith would be dead if it wouldn’t have an impact.
- Poverty is not only material poverty, but it can also be an attitude of the mind, which expects everything from God. The freedom from the worry about possessions, “not being possessed”, makes one open to God and his kingdom.
- Comparing poor and rich is always relative. Much more important is my attitude toward God, who loves me unconditionally and wants to have a relationship with me.
Amen. Frank Moritz-Jauk