James 2:1-13 – Part 1

We’re currently looking (intently) at the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. (See Monday’s post if you missed the intro to the series, as it’s foundational for all of the others.) Over the next three days we’re focusing on James 2:1-13.

Playing the status game

In 2004, philosopher and author Alain de Botton wrote a book called Status Anxiety – all about the status game and why we play it. He observed that our desire to rise in the social hierarchy is not primarily motivated by the material things we accumulate or the power we can wield. Our desire for status is more driven by the amount of love that we stand to receive as a result of having a higher status. Money, fame, and influence are not simply ends in themselves, but a way to get what we really crave – to be loved and accepted by others. He writes:

 ‘Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first – the story of our quest for sexual love – is well known and well charted… The second – the story of our quest for love from the world – is a more secret and shameful tale. If mentioned, it tends to be in caustic, mocking terms, as something of interest chiefly to envious or deficient souls, or else the drive for status is interpreted in an economic sense alone. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here too.’ 

Most economists don’t take this motivation into account, which is why they then scratch their heads in wonder when we as a society don’t behave in rational ways. If a higher standard of living is what we’re all after – if that’s what would make us more happy – then in comparison to people living centuries ago we should be positively delirious. Instead, if anything, we’re even more anxious about our status.

‘A sharp decline in actual deprivation may – paradoxically – have been accompanied by a continuing and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it. Populations blessed with riches and possibilities far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors tilling the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe have shown a remarkable capacity to feel that both who they are and what they have are not enough.’

The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief economics writer, Ross Gittins, agrees. In an article a decade ago, entitled The status race that nobody wins, he talks about this phenomenon:

Though many of us like to think of ourselves as locked in an unending struggle to put food on the table and make ends meet, the truth is that most of us enjoy incomes that extend far beyond what is needed to cover necessities, leaving us with a lot of discretionary income. And the extent of our discretionary income has grown by a few per cent almost every year for decades. How do we choose to spend it? I think it’s obvious that a major factor affecting our spending choices is our desire to purchase those goods and services which, as well as doing whatever it is they are supposed to do, demonstrate our social status. Which help us keep up with – or better, slip ahead of – the Joneses. These purchases are positional goods, goods that reveal our rank – our position in the pecking order. Such things as? Sending our kids to private schools and having private health insurance so as to avoid the [general riff-raff] by going into private hospitals.

Ultimately, he says, for a society this is self-defeating. The more people who accumulate these symbols of status, the more those symbols are devalued. And the truly rich simply invent new ones.

In the children’s movie, The Incredibles, the archvillain, Syndrome, has dedicated his life to making inventions that replicate the powers of superheroes – putting those powers within the reach of everyone. He plans to astonish the world with heroics, then retire. In one of the most memorable lines from the movie, he says:

And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers. Everyone can be Super! And when everyone’s Super… no one will be.

And so we’re locked in this endless struggle for status – a struggle in which the bar is continually being raised; in which we’re constantly being disappointed; in which the love, acceptance, and recognition which we crave seems always just beyond our grasp. We’re trapped playing the status game.

Although in theory we Christians have a different set of values from the world – the upside-down, first-shall-be-last status rules of the kingdom of God – in practice, the church is not immune from this, either. Very easily, the people of God get sucked in to playing the status game just like everyone else. But James, in today’s reading, says that this should not be!!

The situation

In the first 4 verses, James tells us not to show favouritism to people who have the appearance of wealth – of high status. And he gives a very straightforward, easy-to-understand example:

2:1-4  1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Don’t judge people by their covers. Don’t treat them differently according to their appearance. Don’t pay attention to the wealthy, the well-dressed, the attractive, the important – and ignore the poor, the unfashionable, the less-attractive, the people the world judges to be insignificant.

This seems to translate well into today’s world pretty easily, with the possible exception that Aussies are less likely to fawn over the wealthy, thanks to our tall poppy syndrome. But on the whole, it’s an understandable warning: don’t give the wealthy special privileges. However, there’s more going on in this passage than simple discrimination according to wealth. If we do a bit of digging, we’ll see that these verses have our entire status game in view, in all its guises.

The status game in the ancient world

You see, societies at all times have played their own version of the status game. Here’s a little bit of Greek history for you. In the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, in the independent city-states of the Greek empire, there was a number of ways you could prove your status, especially for men.

In the time of war, you could prove your status on the battlefield: just as everyone loves a sporting hero now, everyone then loved a glorious war hero who fought against the enemies of the city.

In a time of peace, you could pursue status in politics, by holding public office. The political system was a bit different from ours – at least in theory – with the wealthy and powerful taking turns at holding the various offices of the cities. In most cases you could only hold such a position for one year. Kind of like the federal opposition at the moment.

There were all sorts of positions of government up for grabs, and the main criterion for holding them was wealth. This was because in lieu of a serious taxation system, part of your duty as a wealthy office-holder was to fund some of the city’s expenses. For example, the person who was the ‘mayor’ of the city would be obliged to provide the food and  entertainment for certain festivals that year; the decurions – made up of the 10 wealthiest citizens – might fund public building projects, or military expenses.

The gymnasiarch was a particularly important position, being in charge of running the gymnasium, and most importantly, ensuring there was a supply of oil. This was apparently a bigger thing than you’d expect. Even in times of severe food shortages, as long as there was oil for the gymnasium, things were still OK. What, you ask, did they do with this oil? Basically, men rubbed oil on each other and then sat naked in a sauna sweating for an hour, before wrapping themselves up in robes. It’s really no wonder this part of the world invented the kebab.

But all this financial burden was the trade-off for the status and power you had as a political leader.

However, much of this changed when the Greek empire came under Roman rule. And by New Testament times, the opportunities to prove your status were considerably diminished. For a start, the Romans brought an enforced peace, so no longer was there the opportunity to prove your prowess in war. And public office wasn’t what it used to be – all the important decisions were made by the Roman emperor and the Senate. Now public office was more of a nuisance and a financial burden. No longer was it all about real power; instead, it was only about how much money you could spend on the city and its citizens during your term in office.

And since this spending of money was now the only outlet to prove your importance, it became the focus. More and more people tried to outdo each other in lavish spending during their year of office – even spending their family into bankruptcy. Why? What was the reward for such public generosity?

The reward was nothing more than status. Honour. Being hailed as a benefactor. Having an inscription in your honour on a public building; or even a statue. Being greeted as an important person; people fawning over you; preferential treatment in public.

So when James talks about favourable treatment of the wealthy, he’s not just talking about judging a book by its cover. He’s talking about an entire system of status – whereby people are given honour simply because they are wealthy, and make a big deal of showing it.

Even more so than today, clothes were a status symbol. The average person wore handmade clothes, as that was all they could afford. Only the wealthy – public office-holders, the “landed gentry” – would have properly tailored garments. So if someone turned up to a church service in fine clothes, it would give the signal that they are among the powerful elite in the city: benefactors, who spent lavishly on public amenities and entertainment. And so the natural, expected thing would be to make a fuss of them. After all, that kind of honour was what society “owed” them for being so generous with their wealth.

To think about

We’ll look at the next part of the text on Monday. But for now – how do we as Christians sometimes reflect the world’s view of status in the way we treat others?

Or to make it more personal, how do you?

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