One Sunday morning when I was in college, I decided to join my parents at their large, downtown church. Since back then my preferred mode of transportation was my bike, I wasn’t exactly wearing my “Sunday-best” clothes when I entered the narthex of the church. There I was greeted by a parish council member who, after noticing my jeans, flannel shirt, Converse sneakers, and backpack, pointed me in the direction of the stairs to the balcony. I then told him that I was joining my mom and dad who were already inside the sanctuary. He then reluctantly opened the main doors to the sanctuary and I walked in to join them, jeans and all.
At lunch that day, I told my mom and dad the story of how I had been “welcomed” into their church that morning. My mother, Eleanor, whose widowed mother had raised seven children by herself in rural North Carolina, was quite disturbed by my experience. Since she was serving on the parish council, my mother wanted to bring this incident up at their next meeting.
When it came to matters of loving our neighbor, my mother could speak her mind. At the parish council meeting, she told the story of how I had been “sized up” (i.e. judged) as a young person who needed to be separated from the well-dressed parishioners in order to be kept out of view. Comprised mostly of men, the parish council listened attentively to my mom’s story. In closing, she read to them from the Scriptures the following passage from the Letter of James:
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?…. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors…. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jas. 2:1–4, 8–9, 13 NKJ)
In light of my mother’s story and the reading from James, the parish council was moved to make a more concerted effort to welcome everyone without partiality, disregarding how people were dressed, whether they were wealthy or poor, or with regard to their race, age or ethnicity. In his challenging letter, St. James teaches that this is how God regards us—without partiality, welcoming all through His abundant compassion, and patient mercy.
The word “to show partiality” (Jam 2:9) is from a compound Greek verb meaning to “receive or accept based on the appearance of a person” (προσωποληπτέω). In the first sentence of this passage, the noun form of this word (προσωπολημψία) serves as a strong prohibition, disqualifying our acts of faith if carried out with partiality: “Do not make distinctions based on types of persons or their appearances when carrying out the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory” (paraphrase mine).
Why would James stress here the contrast between showing partiality in the ministries of the Church and the faith of our Lord of Glory? It is because the Lord of Glory Himself first appeared as a slave, as someone shamefully crucified as a common criminal; as St. Paul writes to Philippians “[Christ Jesus] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross, therefore God also highly exalted Him…” (Phil 2:5-9). Or again, St. Paul describes our Lord saying “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The faith of Jesus Christ, to which we confess and adhere, not only promotes good works, but imitates Him who, though he was from the beginning in God, became poor for our sakes, suffering condemnation to his death, and abandonment by his closest followers. The imitation of Christ means not only ministering to the poor and those outside the boundaries of our normal associations, as He certainly did in His life, but serving all because he too was like all these who are in need. As Jesus said, “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40 NKJ).
Thus as Orthodox Christians we are called to desire not only to be charitable in our philoxenia (hospitality) by extending our ministries outside the walls of our parishes, but also to empathize more deeply with all people by seeing Christ in them; if by God’s grace we are able to see with God’s impartial eyes that those whom we serve are like Christ, our self-emptying Lord who came down into our stressful world, and was willing to be identified as one of its poor. The faith of the Lord of Glory can transform us, by His grace, to see with the eyes of the Lord who became poor. By seeing with these eyes of our Lord, the man-made barriers that have been erected between ourselves and our brother and sisters disappear. By desiring to imitate Jesus in both his acts of mercy towards the poor, and his own identification with them, we pray to become vessels of God’s blessings to all His creation, accommodating each person in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. For God’s love knows no bounds, as he demonstrated when He reached out to us “while we were yet sinners” (Rom 5:8), and “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jam 2:13).
Dr. Bruce Beck is the Interim Dean of Hellenic College, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Director of Religious Studies, and Director of the Pappas Patristic Institute.