If we had a vision of heaven, here’s what we would see. The people that we consider the crummy, no good people, the low-lifes, would be the ones hanging out with Jesus. I think Jesus would be sitting right among them, and we would be in the background, wishing we were right up there with Him. We’d be asking each other, “Man, why did they get a front row seat with Jesus?”
And Jesus would say, “They get a front row seat in heaven because they took a back row seat for their entire life, that’s why. And I’m God. That’s how I work.”
I recently finished John Ortberg’s book Who Is this Man? Ortberg places Jesus’ love for the meek and the outcast in the context of Roman society and Roman values. He describes the strict stratification of Roman society into social class. All the men wore clothes that signified their rank. The most important people in Roman society, the Senators who ran the Empire’s affairs, wore a purple stripe on their togas. Everyone knew who they were and knew to give them preferential treatment based on that purple stripe.
The second most important people were the Equestrians. Equestrians were originally members of the Roman cavalry, and later were the wealthy businessmen of Roman society. Second in status to Senators, they couldn’t wear the purple stripe, but their rank and importance were signified by their expensive togas and gold rings. This is exactly why James told believers that they should treat men wearing “a gold ring and fine clothes” the same as they would treat men in old, dirty clothes.
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? James 2:1-4
In the simplest possible terms, James is telling the church, “Don’t save seats.” Society tells you to make sure that the people wearing nice robes and gold rings get the best seats in the house, but the Kingdom of Heaven is different. So don’t treat them like that. Make sure a homeless guy gets one of the best seats as well.
Don’t save seats! Right? But this is such a hard habit to break. The church is still doing it today! How many times have you been in church, and people find out that someone there has a lot of social status, and all of a sudden they’re in the front row with the pastor? I’ve seen it.
It’s happened to me! Someone will come and say to me, “Hey, you want to come and sit up here with us?” And I’ll say, “No, I’m good. I don’t need to sit in the front row.” I do that because I’ve never really gone in for that stuff, sorting people by status and putting the ones with the most status in the front row.
I’m kind of astonished that the church is still doing this! It specifically says not to do it, right there in James’s letter. People might defend the practice by saying, “Well, we’re trying to honor those that need to be honored.” I get it. I understand some of the circumstances. Save seats for the stranger, the visitor, the guest speaker’s wife, the poor mom who is visiting her sick relative, and so forth. Give seats to strangers. Practice hospitality!
Saving seats based on status is a big deal. It’s a departure from what Jesus taught us to do. More on this next time. See you Wednesday.