Among the New Testament writings, the Letter of James is important for its emphasis on social justice. By social justice I mean how we find our way among the various social, ethnic, economic, gender and political realities that shape our lives. When this letter was written there were probably only a few thousand Christians in the world. These early Christians had little or no political or economic influence. We should not expect from them a full-scale political and social vision such as we find in Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics or in political science textbooks today. But James does provide some basic and challenging principles of social justice.
Today’s selection from James 2 contains two fundamental principles of Christian social teaching. The first is, “Show no partiality.” With the help of a striking example about the very different treatments usually given to the rich and the poor, James insists that we must not discriminate on external appearances. The second principle is sometimes called God’s preferential option for the poor: “Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” In the biblical perspective the poor (at least ideally) recognize their dependence on God for everything and acknowledge that dependence in how they live and act. Such persons grow in faith and are heirs of God’s kingdom. They love God, and God loves them in return.
The other readings illustrate God’s loving care for the “poor,” broadly understood as all those in need. The healing story from Mark 7 contains features typical of the Markan miracle accounts. With the help of his friends, a deaf man with a speech impediment approaches Jesus in faith. Jesus heals him, and the bystanders recognize and bear witness to Jesus’ power as a healer. There are also some peculiar features. Jesus usually heals by word alone. But here there is a detailed description of the healing process with almost magical overtones. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, applies saliva to his tongue and utters the Aramaic word Ephphatha. Despite Jesus’ order, the crowd cannot resist giving voice to their astonishment.
An especially significant feature is the language the bystanders use: “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” They use the words of Isaiah 35, from a part of the book that is clearly related in content and style to Isaiah 40–55, which celebrates the prospect of God leading his people back home from exile in Bablylon. When God leads his people home, he will work miracles on behalf of those who need it most: blind, deaf, lame and mute persons. By linking Jesus’ healing actions to the Old Testament hopes for the redemption and salvation of God’s people, the words of the bystanders suggest that Jesus represents God’s kingdom in action. In Jesus, God is at work for the “poor” and shows his loving care for them. Thus the principle of God’s preferential love for the poor is incarnated in the healing action of Jesus.
• How does the Bible understand the “the poor”? Is the biblical definition limited to economic poverty, or is it broader? Who qualifies as poor?
• Where does God’s preference for “the poor” leave “the rich”? Is there any hope for them? What must they do?
• In what ways does Jesus in the Gospels manifest God’s preferential love for the poor?