A church historian recounts a tradition that emerged among certain early Christian fellowships. Whenever a member of the community entered for worship, an usher would greet him and tend to his needs. However, if a stranger walked through the doors (and even more so if he was a poor stranger), the bishop rose from his seat and swiftly made his way to the entrance, offering a gregarious welcome and demonstrating friendship with the one typically consigned to the fringe.
Though we don’t know how widespread this particular practice was, the motivation behind it emanated from the core of Christian faith. Take a look at the book of Acts: woven through its wild stories of Christianity’s inexplicable explosion is the persistent theme of how the church existed as a counterculture in stark contrast to powerful, exploitive societal norms. Those who were easily discarded in Jewish or Roman culture (the poor, the sick, the weak, the outsider) were welcomed enthusiastically into the community of Jesus’ followers. The theme continues throughout the New Testament, where we find the church enacting Jesus’ insistence on friendship to the poor, the stranger, and the outcast.
READ James 2:1-13
This gospel imperative explains why James was so profoundly disturbed when word reached him that in some of the churches, the rich were given preference over the poor. Church leaders doted over a person wearing “a gold ring and fine clothes,” but when a “poor man in dirty clothes” entered the assembly, he was dismissively pushed aside (vv. 2-3).
Sadly, this scenario has been reenacted throughout human history: the poor are diminished while the rich amass more power, more deference. This is why Scripture, from Old Testament to New, announces that God lifts up the poor. He seeks out those who are impoverished, the ones left to fend for themselves, and the ones who have been oppressed. The Lord is truly a friend of the poor (Ps. 140:12; Luke 4:16-21).
This is good news for all of us because everyone is, in some way, poor. James certainly had the financially destitute first in mind, but the word poor carries a broad meaning in Scripture. In a world fallen from the goodness God intends, there are limitless ways we are impoverished. We may feel wrenching grief, pain, or guilt. We may be stuck in the pervasive grip of loneliness. We may worry about how to feed our children, or we may fear we will never have children to call our own. No matter how you are poor, receive this gospel word: God has chosen you. As James 2:5 says, “God [has chosen] the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.”
Since God enacted a radical welcome for all of us who are outcasts, and since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ binds together a new humanity, James could not understand why judgment and favoritism continued in the Christian community. The church is where our external distinctions are no longer barriers to relationship—and where God welcomes us all together in Christ.
For James, this reference to “Christ” was crucial—it’s a royal title (v. 1). Essentially, he’s asking us, Do you remember that the Lord is in charge here? How can you play favorites when Jesus is King? This question cuts to the core because favoritism was an explicit denial of Christ’s authority and His “royal law,” which decrees, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8).
The church is the place where outsiders are no longer strangers but friends, where all are welcomed and everyone finds connection. There, the lowly are lifted up and the destitute given plenty. And those who have been pushed aside find themselves pulled right up to a prime seat at the King’s table.
REFLECT + EXPLORE
Reflect on these insights from supporting scriptures. If you have time, explore the passages and journal your responses.
• One antidote to condescension and exclusivity is the recognition that we are all in a similar position: in need of God to meet us in our broken places.
Read Matthew 5:1-12, the opening lines of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Note the many kinds of struggle, helplessness, and vulnerability—the passage is a litany of ways that people need God’s grace and healing touch. Which areas resonate with you?
• Reread Matthew 5:1-12.
On this second pass, pay attention to how God intervenes for each person. What might it mean to be “blessed”? What are the implications for us when we realize all broken individuals are blessed by the same God and find hope and healing in His loving rescue?
• James reminds us that the Lord breaks down barriers and creates an inclusive new community.
Read Acts 2:42-47. How do you see this gospel of friendship and belonging—without barriers of ethnicity, class, or gender—exhibited among Jesus’ followers?
Answer the following questions, and journal your thoughts if possible.
• Where do you see relational barriers (such as favoritism, prejudice, or fear) at work in your life? Ask God how He wants the power of Jesus, the King of our lives, to break down those barriers.
• How might the Lord be calling you to step into relationship with another person? Where are you to love another as yourself?