Favoritism, Hospitality, and No Hunting!
In the Roman legal system, justice was symbolized by a famous image: a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales (signifying a fair judgment) and a sword (signifying the authority to enforce justice). The symbolism is clear. Everyone is equal in the sight of the law. Justice doesn't play favorites.
James 2 and Playing Favorites
James says that love doesn't play favorites either. In James 2:1-9, there's a situation in a local church where different kinds of people are visiting, but the church members don't treat everyone impartially. Instead, they play favorites. When a well-dressed, well-to-do man enters the gathering, the congregation is quick to welcome him and give him a good seat. However, when a poor man in shabby clothing comes in, he's basically ignored or rudely shoved to the sidelines.
James says these actions are like windows into our heart. When we play favorites, we become "judges with evil thoughts" (v. 4). We elevate ourselves to the place of God and declare that one person is worthy of our time, effort, and attention, but the other person isn't. What's even worse is that we base these judgments almost exclusively on the superficial. One person is well-dressed, while the other person isn't. One person is attractive, while the other person isn't. One person "fits in," while the other stands out like a sore thumb. One person conveys what we (secretly) want our church to be known for—respectability, status, and prestige. The other person? Not so much. And because that person doesn't meet our expectations, he's made to feel unwelcome ("stand over there" and "sit at my feet").
Hunting vs. Hospitality
What about us? When a visitor to our church is everything we want to be (attractive, likeable, respectable, well-to-do), do we prefer him or her over the dingy-looking visitor sitting in the back row? I've noticed that when a guest looks like us, talks like us, or perhaps went to the same high school as we did, we don't usually have a problem making that person feel welcome! But when a visitor who doesn't seem to "fit in" enters the church, we often make that person feel unwelcome. We may not literally say "sit at my feet," but we do say other stuff. We make comments about the person to our friends. We tell inside jokes that make the visitor feel excluded. And what's probably worst, we make sarcastic remarks to the person. We may simply intend to be funny, but the visitor—who doesn't know us and our humor—takes it personally.
Perhaps we don't say rude things to visitors, but in a dozen different ways, we avoid them and send a strong message of "Go stand over there. We don't want you near us." We may never greet them, or perhaps we do so once just because we know we should. We avert eye contact with visitors in order to avoid implying that we want to talk to them. Perhaps we only sit next to people we know and with whom we feel comfortable.
At our Youth & Family Group, we call this attitude and accompanying actions "hunting." Whenever we make someone feel unwelcome by talking to, talking about, or treating that person rudely, it's as if we've painted a target on the person's back and are taking potshots. And that's why we have a "no hunting" policy. We want the group to be a safe place where everyone is accepted—regardless of skin color (or hair color!), ethnicity, family background, school, or belief. We want it to be a place where no one looks at you strangely because you go to a public school (gasp!) instead of a Christian school. We want it to be a place where there's positive peer pressure to love and serve the stranger among us.
Why No Hunting?
Here are three quick reasons why we shouldn't tolerate an unhospitable attitude:
First, Jesus is hospitable to us. Christ welcomes us even though there's nothing inherently desirable about us. In fact, he loved us even though we were strangers to his covenant and enemies of God. Right when we were spiritually poor and could do nothing to earn his favor, he sacrificed himself for us so that we might be adopted into his family. If that's what he has done for us, how can we turn around and make others feel unwelcome?
Second, Jesus specifically targets the lowly for his Kingdom (v. 5). The "undesirables" of the world have a special place in God's plan of redemption (1 Cor 1:26-30). It's not the rich, proud, and important that God brings into his Kingdom, but the humble and lowly (see Matt 5:12). We need to realize that we're not as good, influential, or important as we think we are. Yet God chose to save us. Why? So that he might get the glory! God takes the world's expectations and turns them upside down. It's like when God used cowardly Gideon and three hundred men to defeat the massive Midianite army. By welcoming the poor, lowly, and broken into his Kingdom, God gives us a powerful picture of the upside-down logic of the gospel.
Third, hospitality isn't based on your feelings; it's based on love. That might sound like a contradiction, but it's not. As James 2:8 makes clear, love isn't a feeling; rather, it's an action we are commanded to express toward others. It's not an emotion we can magically conjure up in ourselves, but an attitude of sacrificial service that flows from what Christ has done for us. We need to make that distinction because we are commanded to love those we don't necessarily like. People can be totally obnoxious or arrogant or hurtful, and yet we're still called to love that person. Christian love isn't based on the desirability of the other person but on the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.