Stop sucking up to the wealthy.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 May

James 2.1-9.

A lot of Americans aren’t Christians anywhere near as much as they’re Mammonists: They covet wealth. They don’t necessarily have it, but the American Dream tells ’em if they work hard enough, they will. So, anticipating the day they become wealthy, they wanna rig things so they get to keep as much of their wealth as possible… even if such a system totally works against them today, or even if it actually makes wealth creation impossible. Single-minded covetousness blinds people to a whole lot of things.

And to their minds, critiquing the wealthy kinda means you’re critiquing them. ’Cause they aspire to wealth. One day they expect to be wealthy. Since they already envision themselves in the role… well, those criticisms aren’t justified. They aren’t greedy. They aren’t exploiting anyone. They’re honest, hardworking Americans. The critics are just trying to shake them down and get something for nothing. Greedy opportunists.

They can’t—and really won’t—fathom the idea some wealthy folks are totally exploiting the needy. Have been for centuries. And aren’t anywhere near as good and kind and Christian as they imagine. But they sure do play Christian.

Jesus’s brother James saw right through all of that, and pointed it out to his readers who were blind to it:

James 2.1-4 KWL
1 My fellow Christians, don’t act prejudicially.
Not in the faith of our glorious master, Christ Jesus.
2 When a man with a gold ring and showy clothing enters your synagogue,
and a poor person in dirty clothes also enters,
3 and you covetously eye the wearer of showy clothing and say, “You sit here in the good spot,”
and tell the poor person, “You stand there,” or “Sit under my footstool”:
4 Isn’t this prejudice among you?
Have you become critics with evil schemes?

See, it’s human nature to want to suck up to the successful. Irritating, but true. Everybody loves a winner, and whenever somebody does well in an area we admire, we flock to ’em like flies to manure. Those who love money flock to the wealthy. Those who pursue fame gather round celebrities. Those who aspire to be smart kowtow to the intellectuals. Those who covet power follow the powerful. And this is true even in church.

Thing is, not everyone who’s achieved worldly success has done so in a righteous way. In fact, since it’s worldly success, it’s almost guaranteed they did a lot of worldly things to achieve it. They made compromises. They lied or stole or slandered others. They took advantage of people who couldn’t help their circumstances. This was true in the Roman Empire, and true today. Success and righteousness have nothing to do with one another. Remember, the devil promised Jesus the world if only our Lord would kneel down. Lk 4.5-7 Too many of us haven’t resisted that temptation.

Do the worthy merit preferential treatment?

When people spend a lot of money on a product or service, they often justify it by saying, “You get what you pay for.” The good stuff, the preferential treatment, is all because you paid for it. Paid through the nose sometimes.

I’ve hung out with wealthy people long enough to know better. Most of the time the wealthy don’t need to pay for a thing. People give ’em a whole lot of free stuff because they’re wealthy. They want ’em around, classing up the place. I know this one wealthy guy who’s never had to buy his own iPod, iPhone, or iPad; he’s always been given freebies in gift bags. He doesn’t have to pay for perquisites. They’re come along with being in the wealthy class.

Unfair? Sure. But that’s how human nature works. That’s why the people of James’s church were giving nice seats to the nice-dressed guests. If they look like they merit better treatment, that’s what they tend to get. Con artists take advantage of this trait all the time. I’ve done it too, as a journalist: Look like you belong there, and people just assume you do.

But James went on to point out this is a false assumption. Which we’d realize if we remembered how certain wealthy people usually treat others.

James 2.5-9 KWL
5 Listen, my beloved fellow Christians: Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world
who are wealthy in faith, who proclaim they love him, as inheritors of his kingdom?
6 And you dishonor the poor.
Don’t the wealthy exploit you and drag you into court?
7 Don’t they slander Jesus’s good name, who called upon you?
8 But if you fulfill the kingdom’s Law, you do right.
(“You’ll love your neighbor as yourself,” Lv 19.18 according to scripture.)
9 If you show favoritism, your disgraceful, backslider-like behavior produces sin,
according to the Law.

The wealthy, James reminded them, exploited them. Dragged them into court; we don’t know the specifics, but usually court cases back then had to do with debts. If you couldn’t pay your debts in the Roman Empire, it meant slavery: You, or your family members, got sold to pay your bills. Often it was slavery to the very person you owed, and now they’d get free labor out of you, which would be completely disproportionate to the original debt. A $10 debt could become $10,000 worth of free labor. Now that’s exploitation; and here you thought credit card interest was outrageous.

As for slandering Jesus… well, we don’t know what the wealthy said to disparage Jesus. My guess is it has to do with the way those who covet power tend to confuse forgiveness with weakness. When they’re awful to us, yet we forgive them, they project their own rotten attitudes upon us, and figure we forgive ’cause we haven’t the power to retaliate. “Of course you forgive me; you’re gonna need me later. How pathetic.” The fact we’re obeying Jesus is never taken into consideration. Or sometimes he is—and they assume he’s weak, and that Christianity is a religion for losers.

Some of that mindset has trickled into Christianity, ’cause among us we obviously have Christians who covet power, and make light of those who can’t stand up to them. They’re not generous and gracious in victory, like Jesus; they assume they won because God’s on their side. Sometimes God’s not. Sometimes they’re just as exploitative as the worst of the wealthy. They don’t deserve partiality either. Really, none of us do.

That’s why Jesus taught us to not pick favorites, but love everyone unconditionally. Love the poor same as the wealthy; love the “deserving” same as the undeserving. Love like God does. Mt 5.43-48 Giving the best seats to the wealthy, and the worst seats to the needy, means we’re not obeying Jesus. His kingdom is good news to the poor, Lk 4.18, 6.20, 7.22 who might’ve assumed their lack of material success means God doesn’t care about them. Of course he does. What’re we doing, persisting in their error? There are no classes in the kingdom. Don’t permit the world’s social strata to invade Christ’s churches.

The smokescreen of “class warfare.”

The prophets make plain that when people are being exploited, God takes their side. Ps 12.5, 35.10, 72.13, 109.31, 140.12, Is 25.4 He created humans so they could be loved, not exploited. It outrages him. Should outrage his followers.

But while we’re being honest about how the wealthy aren’t all that pure, let’s be just as honest about how the poor and needy aren’t all that pure either. We’re all selfish sinners. Money, or the lack of it, doesn’t change that playing field. God may take the poor’s side when they’re being wronged. But he doesn’t remain on the poor’s side when they’re doing wrong themselves.

And there are some poor people who aren’t really fighting the wealthy to end exploitation. That’s their excuse. In reality they covet power. They fight the “one percent” not because the wealthy are hoarding their wealth, aren’t paying their taxes, and sinfully aren’t caring for the needy: They fight ’em because they wanna feel self-righteous, be the good guys taking on the bad guys, and receive the praises of the exploited needy. If the wealthy repented tomorrow, and generously fixed society’s problems to the best of their ability, these protesters wouldn’t say, “Fight’s over; we won!” and stand down. They’d go find another cause to agitate over. ’Cause agitation is power.

Likewise there are protesters who really just want the money. They believe in “the class struggle,” as Communist Manifesto author Karl Marx put it—that the battle between workers and rulers in every capitalist society will only end in violence, with the rulers stamping down the workers, or the workers overthrowing and killing the rulers. They’re fine with that. Kill the rich; seize their wealth; now they’re wealthy. Of course, as Marxist dictatorships regularly demonstrate, once they win, they just recreate the original problem, with themselves as the rulers brutally suppressing the workers. Exactly like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

There are such creatures as the righteous wealthy, the unrighteous poor, and their opposites. I’ve met ’em all. Neither poverty nor wealth makes people noble or depraved. And even if it did, we’re commanded against showing favoritism based on wealth. Lv 19.15 The poor don’t get a free pass because they grew up in a rough environment; the wealthy don’t get a free pass because they can pay for fines and lawyers and bribes and then some. People need to be gauged by their rightness before God—and God’s grace. Not their possessions, nor lack of them. That stuff shouldn’t matter.

Hence the wealthy who complain James’s teaching sounds like class warfare, and object; or the poor who use James’s teaching to condemn all wealthy people everywhere: They’re both wrong. The poor need to stop coveting wealth and power. And the wealthy need to watch out, lest they unthinkingly take advantage of the weak, and quit assuming all your critics are socialists who only care about your money, or Marxists who only want you dead. Sometimes we’re legitimately in the wrong. ’Cause we’re all wrong. Never use class warfare to justify your sins.

If I have an advantage, my duty is to help.

Jesus flattened the distinctions between women and men, rich and poor, nobles and peasants, freemen and slaves, Jews and gentiles, light- and dark-skinned, clergy and laymen, doctors and the illiterate, English-speakers and Spanish-speakers. Pick your distinction, and Jesus considers it irrelevant. We’re all God’s kids. We’re all family.

God created a chosen people out of a Semitic race of Egyptian slaves. He turned a bunch of dirty Roman pagans into daughters and sons. As Paul and Sosthenes elsewhere put it:

1 Corinthians 1.26-31 KWL
26 Christians: Look at when you were invited.
Not many of the so-called “wise”; not many powerful; not many nobles.
27 But God chose the world’s morons to shame the wise.
God chose the world’s weaklings to shame the strong.
28 God chose the world’s bastards and outcasts—
those who are nothing, so he might cancel out those who are “something.”
29 This way, when all flesh stand before God, none can emphasize themselves.
30 Because of this, you’re in Christ Jesus, who became our wisdom from God;
our rightness, holiness, and freedom, 31 just as it’s written:
If you people emphasize anything, emphasize the Lord!” Jr 9.24

God thinks so little of human social strata, he deliberately structured his kingdom so it dismisses it altogether. Outcasts? We’ll take ’em. Scum of the earth? God turns them into his kings and priests. Rv 1.6, 5.10

So what business do we have re-instituting these distinctions in his churches? None. Jesus taught us the greatest in his kingdom must serve everyone else. Mk 10.43 If I’m richer than you, my riches must be tapped to meet your needs. If I’m better educated than you, I need to help bring you up to my level. If I have connections and you don’t, I should use them to help you out. If I don’t suffer from prejudice and sexism (and as a white male, I really don’t), I’m obligated to use my advantage to fight prejudice and sexism on others’ behalf. And if I show up in church with bling and nice clothes, I’d better bloody well give the shabby person my comfortable seat.

If I’m wealthy, I have all sorts of resources I can use to spread righteousness. Woe to me if I don’t bother, and instead adopt the social-Darwinist view of, “I’m rich because I deserve it—and don’t you dare treat me as if I don’t.” That violates the spirit of Jesus, and resembles the world, not his kingdom. That doesn’t love our neighbors as ourselves. As James rightly points out, it’s sin.

So whenever we find it in our churches—’cause it sneaks in all the time—we need to be rid of it.