READ : James 2:1-4
Can I possibly be both a believer in Jesus and a snob?
What Is a “Snob”?
Think with me now about the sin of snobbery. It’s a peculiar trait. We recognize it quite readily in other people and cordially despise it. But sometimes we succumb to it quite unwittingly ourselves, never imagining that we could be guilty of such a thing. If someone accused us of it, we would be horrified. “Me? A snob?”
Just what are we talking about here? Webster gives us this definition: A snob is “one who by his conduct makes evident that he sets too much store by rank, wealth, and social eminence.” Did you get that? A snob is someone who shows by the way he lives that he is overly impressed by the riches, position, and prestige of other people. Suddenly that strikes close to home, doesn’t it? How many people do you know like that? Or, how much is your own manner of living colored by such an attitude?
Snobbishness can crop up in the most unexpected places. James, one of the New Testament writers, discovered it, for example, in the church.
Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ! Suppose one man comes into your meeting well dressed and with a gold ring on his finger, and another man, obviously poor, arrives in shabby clothes. If you pay special attention to the well-dressed man by saying, “Please sit here – it’s an excellent seat,” and say to the poor man, “You stand over there, please, or if you must sit, sit on the floor,” doesn’t that prove that you are making class distinctions in your mind, and setting yourselves up to assess a man’s quality? – “a very bad thing.
James 2:1-4 Phillips
Can you imagine that? I can. I’ve seen much the same thing happen in groups I’ve been a part of and in churches I’ve attended. I remember seeing an attractive couple with two beautiful, well-groomed children visit a congregation and be almost overwhelmed with attention after the service, while another visitor, a mother of modest means with several shabbily dressed children, was almost ignored in the same setting. It seemed that even in a church which professed to welcome everyone, some were definitely more welcome than others.
I don’t believe that was an isolated case. Some years ago, I canvassed a community, seeking to determine the church connection, or lack of it, of the people who lived there. That was interesting and disturbing. We found poor families in that community, living within a few blocks of several churches, who, as far as I could determine, had never been personally invited to attend one of them. But in the course of our calling, we also met a doctor who had recently moved into town. His family, if you can imagine this, had already been greeted by callers from fifteen different congregations! Apparently, if they should turn up in church some Sunday morning, they could expect red carpet treatment, while less prominent, less prosperous visitors might slip in and out unnoticed. Perhaps church people don’t do this sort of thing consciously, or by design. It just seems to work out that way, doesn’t it?
But James, always the advocate of practical Christianity, passionate about reality in our religion, won’t let us get away with that. He wants us to look squarely at this practice, this tendency, and to see it for what it is: snobbery. He first analyzes it for us and then gives us compelling reasons why it should have no place among the people of God.
The Twin Evils of Snobbery
When we show such partiality, says James, we commit two evils. For one thing, we set up “class distinctions” within the church. Whether we are aware of it or not, the “respect of persons” creates divisions within the Christian fellowship. Those distinctions and divisions already exist, of course, in the world outside. They’re common in every society. The rich and the famous are universally catered to and fawned over, but who goes out of their way to win the friendship or seek the company of needy, unemployed people? The well-known entertainer or the talented athlete is welcome at social events from which common people, the unknowns of society, are excluded. We’re used to that. But how tragic it is when the spirit of the world finds expression in the church!
And what happens as a result? The favored visitors, of course, feel very much at home in the church. They may comment on the friendliness of the congregation, the graciousness of the people. It is strongly suggested to them that the same qualities which have made them successful and popular in the world will make a comfortable place for them in the church as well.
But what of the others? They see all too clearly that although some are wanted and welcomed with enthusiasm, they are not. Some are inquired after and invited out socially, but they are not. How will they feel toward the members of that church, and toward these other newcomers who get such special treatment? Can they possibly feel very close to either group? And will there be much incentive for them to visit that congregation again? They may drift away. We can say then, comforting ourselves, that it was because they were “spiritually indifferent” or they were not “our kind.” Both estimates may have truth in them and yet both miss the real reason why many don’t come back. By our snobbishness, we built barriers too high for them to cross. We created distance where God wanted closeness.
Also, says James, by acting in that way, we “set ourselves up to assess a man’s quality, or a woman’s.” We appoint ourselves judges, and we carry out that judgment in a highly questionable way. Those estimates of ours, based on appearance, wealth, social position, have nothing whatever to do with a person’s character or worth. We ought, of course, to give special honor to those to whom honor is due. Perhaps the rich, the well dressed, the personally attractive deserve such recognition. But if they do, it is not because of those qualities. Perhaps the poor and the unheralded should receive less honor, but surely not because of their poverty or obscurity. Let people be honored for the depth of their faith, the self-giving service of their lives, the nobility of their character. There is a certain justice to that. But to rank people by externals is patently unjust.
From the standpoint of Christian faith, especially, such partiality has no justification. It doesn’t even make sense. Look, says James, at the relative track records of the rich and the poor in their attitudes toward God and his people:
For do notice, my brothers, that God chose poor men, whose only riches was their faith, and made them heirs to the Kingdom promised to those who love him. And if you behave as I have suggested, it is the poor man that you are insulting. Look around you. Isn’t it the rich who are always trying to ‘boss’ you? . . . Isn’t it usually the rich who blaspheme the glorious Name by which you are known?
James 2:5-7, Phillips
James isn’t saying here that poor people are all virtuous and godly, nor is he branding all the rich as heartless oppressors. But he does point out that those whom God has chosen have often been lowly and unnoticed in this world. Remember that quip, “God must love the common people. He made so many of them”? That has some truth to it. The early Christian churches, at least, were full of what the world would call “nobodies.” Read these words of Paul to his fellow believers in Corinth:
For consider your call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.
1 Cor. 1:26-27
And though there are notable exceptions, great wealth and extensive power have not usually tended to make people more sensitive or compassionate. Fame and renown have not generally made their recipients more humble. So, although people having great possessions and high standing in society shouldn’t prejudice us against them, such wealth should not create a bias in their favor. Judging by externals is always perilous, but if perfectly equitable treatment isn’t possible and you have to give one group a slight edge, then, says James, the odds are with the common folk.
Why it Can’t Co-exist with Faith in Jesus
The most telling argument against snobbery within the church is the one with which James begins: “Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ!” This partiality, these class distinctions within the church are ruled out by the one whom we call “Lord.” When he came, God in human flesh, he chose to be born in a humble family and to live in an obscure village.
Remember how it was that he treated people when he was here among us? He cared for those of the upper class. He had friends among the rich. He went to the homes of Pharisees to dine. He was proud to be a Jew and called a group of males to be his disciples. But what was remarkable about him was the way in which he consciously and deliberately stepped over the lines of class distinction and sided with others who were forgotten and despised.
In a world where the rich were often arrogant, he pronounced special blessings on the poor. He saw it as his special mission to bring them good news. He lived in poverty himself and died with no estate but the robe that he wore. In a world where women were less than second-class citizens, he treated them always as persons of worth and dignity. He broke tradition by speaking to them in public. He taught them the word of God and accepted ministry at their hands. In a world where “the people of the land” were scorned by meticulous Pharisees, he identified himself with these outcasts, ate at their tables, and let himself be called their friend.
And then there were the Samaritans. They were scorned by the Jews as half-breeds and heretics. But Jesus made a special point of going through their country. He praised a Samaritan for his faith and made another one the hero of his most famous parable. Nor did Jesus share in the commonly held revulsion toward lepers. He cared for them, conversed with them, even touched them, a thing unheard of in his time, and made them whole again.
Do you see the kind of person he was? Nothing in another person’s appearance or status or material means either impressed or repelled him. He cared for all, served them, called them, welcomed them, no matter who they were or where they came from, no matter what they looked like or what others said about them. He was as far removed as a person could be from snobbery because he had a heart of love.
Now how, asks James, can you possibly combine faith in this Savior, in this Lord, with petty partiality? Friends, it can’t be done. This word of God issues two calls to us today. First, trust in the glorious Lord who loved those of every class, who gave himself for us all, who welcomes all who will repent and trust in him. Put your trust in this “glorious Lord,” as James calls him. And when you do, when you rely upon him as Redeemer, when you commit yourself to him as Master, when you start out by his power to follow him, then remember whose you are and refuse to be a snob. Yours is the faith that welcomes everyone!