Sun, Sep 06, 2015

Clutching at straws?


Growing up, things were tough.

Dad had lost his job…

which had ended in a lengthy and expensive legal battle…

and we survived on the rental income of a couple of houses that he’d bought when times were good.

That only got worse after my parents separated.

After that, dad continually thought up “ingenious” ways to “strike it rich”––

like the time he bought a state-of-the-art, expensive metal detector…

and scoured the countryside for treasure.

And, of course, each week he’d buy a lotto ticket…

hoping to strike it big.


In a way, we all do it, don’t we?

When things get tough…

when survival becomes a battle…

it’s easy to clutch at straws…

to dwell on the “what ifs” and the “if onlys”.


The church to which the author of James wrote was comprised of battlers––

people who weren’t powerful or prosperous.

Rather, people who were struggling to make ends meet…

worrying about whether there would be enough to last until the next harvest…

or until the next time that they could sell a pot…

or a sickle…

or a pair of sandals.

But they weren’t just a community of battlers…

they would also have been a battling community.

Like most first century churches, they would have been small in number––

perhaps, no more than about twenty or thirty.

And they were surrounded by a wider community that would not have cared whether they survived;

a community that treated them with suspicion––

if not outright hostility and contempt.

So they probably felt quite vulnerable and anxious about the future.

They probably would have dwelt on the “what ifs” and the “if onlys”.

Imagine, then, what it would be like if someone wealthy came in?

I mean someone really wealthy––

filthy rich––

someone powerful and well-connected.

How would you treat him?

Let’s be honest…

whether intentionally or not you would probably treat him as well as you could!

You would try to make him feel especially welcome:

ensure that he had a good seat––

if not the best seat;

that he was comfortable and well-looked after;

so that, perhaps, he might decide to come back…


and become a member.

Or, barring that––

as often happened in that time and culture––

you might hope that he would become your patron;

which means that you would support him when he ran for public office…

and you would put up a plaque advertising his generosity and support.

But, in return, he would give you a regular handout;

offer financial support for any building project—

if not fund it entirely himself;

and offer legal assistance, if or when it was needed.

All of which could make a huge difference…

guaranteeing the church’s survival.

If we’re honest…

in that sort of situation, most of us would probably do it.

Most of us would go out of our way to be especially nice.

It would be pretty normal––

almost instinctive.

Because, in the end, it was the community’s survival that mattered.


Well, not according to the author of James.

Rather, he suggests that they have failed to grasp the fundamental ethical principle…

that the end never justifies the means.

In fawning over a rich person like this, they have “dishonoured the poor”.

After all, in the world of the first century…

to be rich was synonymous with being a thief.

One only became rich at someone else’s expense…

by exploiting those who were poor and powerless…

offering loans when times were tough––

at high rates of interest––

then confiscating their land when they couldn’t repay…

and offering to lease it back to them…

in return for a significant percentage of the crop…

while using the legal system to shore up their power and privilege.

That’s how people became rich in the first century.

So, to accept a handout from such a person––

to support such a person publicly––

was to condone their greed and exploitation.

Sure, the survival of the church was important.

But if it meant conspiring with injustice and oppression…

then, no, it wasn’t worth it––

no matter what the cost.

Because the end never justifies the means.


And yet, they hadn’t just failed to grasp that ethical principle.

They had also failed to grasp a fundamental theological principle––

although it’s implied here, rather than spelled out––

namely, they have failed to grasp the very nature of God:

that God loves;

and that love is indiscriminate…


and unconditional.

God loves all people––

regardless of who they are…

regardless of how they look…

regardless of what they do…

regardless of what they have or don’t have to offer.

So, by their very actions, this community have denied the very nature of God.

They have perpetrated a lie.

They have acted as if some people are more important than others…

as if some people are more valuable than others…

as if God loved some people more than others.

And, in so doing, they have failed to understand who they are––

as church––

and who they are meant to be:

that they are called to demonstrate the love of God…

in practical ways…

to all people.

They are called to live out their faith––

because a faith that isn’t lived out is useless.

Indeed, such a faith is dead.


That’s a message that the Church in Australia needs to hear.

In the face of declining numbers and worries about survival…

and the “what ifs” and the “if onlys”…

too often we succumb to an “end justifying the means” mind-set.

Too often the only criteria that matter in assessing a church are:

How many members does it have and how many attend each week?

What’s its age and demographic profile?

What’s its annual income and can it support a minister?

Indeed, any church that isn’t seen as growing numerically—

and some people actually stipulate ten percent per annum—

is deemed a failure.

Any church that doesn’t have large numbers of children and families—

is deemed non-viable.

Any efforts to reach out to the local community that don’t increase numbers––

especially among those who are able to contribute––

is deemed pointless.

As if the only people who matter to the church are those with disposable income…

or those with lots of children.

So a church that seeks to cater for the elderly is dismissed as irrelevant––

only fit for history’s scrap heap.

But, in so doing, have we forgotten who God is?

Have we forgotten who we are?

Have we forgotten who we’re meant to be?


The author of James reminds us that…

when that happens…

our “faith” is actually dead.

And a church that gives in to that sort of thinking will be too…


Or, perhaps, it ought to be!

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