All people are worthy of my time and attention.
Notice this doesn’t say, “I think all people are worthy of my time and attention.”
That’s because the statement is not an opinion, it’s the truth. It will always be true, even when I completely botch it up and ignore the people that smell funny or drive me batty.
James, the brother of Jesus, writes:
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4, ESV)
The word translated partiality is fascinating. We tend to understand partiality to simply mean “preference.”
I am partial to coffee over tea.
My wife is my best friend.
My favorite band is Radiohead.
It’s not wrong to have favorite things. I get along better with certain people than I do with others.
That’s no sin.
The original language used by James is deeper than the idea of simple preference.
Partiality, (also translated “respect of persons”) specifically refers to human error.
Partiality is the mistake I make when I give one person better treatment than another, simply because I have perceived that person to be more noble, wealthy, better-connected, or better looking than others.
Partiality is when I decide that some types of people are worthy of my time while other types of people are not.
The ministry I work with has a morning coffee shop whose customers are mostly poor, homeless, and/or mentally ill. One of our regulars is a neighbor named Stephen. Stephen is in his early twenties and is almost always on the verge of homelessness. The reason for Stephen’s chronic dilemma is that he drives everyone crazy. He seems capable enough to get a job and get things going for himself, but instead he spends hours on the internet watching anime and complaining about life problems… while refusing to take advice from anyone seeking to help.
When Stephen comes into the coffee shop, I sometimes treat him poorly. I am short with my replies to his questions. Or I don’t engage him with conversation at all.
Once, though, I was reading some scripture with Stephen and another neighbor named Allen. We were discussing the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man found in Luke 16. In the story, the Rich Man ignores the poor beggar named Lazarus. The man ignores Lazarus’ needs and Lazarus eventually dies. Well, the Rich Man dies too and both end up in the afterlife. Lazarus is next to Abraham while the Rich Man suffers in the fires of Hades.
I asked Stephen and Allen what they thought about the story. To my shame, I only made eye contact with Allen, expecting Stephen to have nothing of value to add.
Allen had no clue what he thought of the story… in fact it was clear he wasn’t really listening as we read.
Stephen, however, responded thoughtfully:
“I think the story is telling us to be more like Lazarus.”
“How so?” I asked, not really understanding his answer.
“Well,” Stephen explained, “Lazarus trusted in God, even when he was sick and hungry. And he didn’t steal from the rich man or sin to make ends meet.”
I was blown away. I had honestly never seen that side of the story. The faithfulness of Lazarus in the midst of a miserable life. And what greater commentary to receive than from the man whose life looks so much like the protagonist of the story?
Then there is the painful reality check:
If Lazarus and Stephen are worthy of God’s presence, why aren’t they worthy of mine?
And if Stephen is Lazarus, who am I?