Monday, May 10, 2010

Partiality and Our Ministry to Outcasts

by Bruce Mills
I just taught through Romans 12:16 in my adult Sunday School class. The first half of that verse reads: “Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly.”  As I studied and prepared to teach my class, the implications of this particular verse had a significant impact on me personally.
The virtue which is expressed in the words “be of the same mind toward one another” is that of impartiality. The original Greek text literally says, “Thinking the same things toward one another.”  So it isn’t saying that we have to all have the same viewpoint on every issue, but rather that we are to display the same attitude toward all other people, whatever their social, ethnic, or economic status.
The most explicit New Testament teaching on impartiality is given in James 2:1-4. It says, “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” And then James 2:9: “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
I recently had an illustration in my own life of how easy it is to fall into this sin. I had just read this passage in my own personal quiet time and so it was fresh in my mind. I was serving communion one Sunday evening at my church and there was a man sitting at the end of a pew as I was serving who was wearing filthy clothes and had strong body odor. I almost had to hold my breath as I passed by him. My first thought was so sinful. I thought, “Oh my, why is he here? Couldn’t he take a bath?” And then I realized where I was, what I was doing, and what God’s Word had to say about this situation. Here I was, an elder in the church, serving communion, and at that very moment, I was guilty of the sin of partiality which James condemned. I immediately confessed my sin and repented, and when I went by him again, I looked at him as a man who was there to remember the Lord’s death and I mentally thanked the Lord for that.
We are to think the same things toward one another. Our attitude toward others should be the same regardless of their skin color, their economic status, or their social status. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to set up our own mental caste system, such as exists in India. We are to recognize that every human being who exists, exists because of the grace of God and therefore, He cares about them. So we need to care about them too and look at them as He looks at them. And according to Scripture, “there is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11). So since He is impartial, we are to be impartial.
That means no prejudice, no bias, no hatred. Not against blacks, not against whites, not against yellow, red, or any other color. Not against rich, not against poor, not against uneducated, not against highly educated. There is to be no partiality among believers.
Closely related to not being partial is Paul’s next prohibition in Rom. 12:16 about not being “haughty in mind.”  It translates a Greek phrase which literally says, “do not think highly” (or “arrogantly”).
Partiality is closely related to a reluctance to show respect for, or even to “associate with the lowly,” such as the “poor man in dirty clothes” in the James passage. The idea is not that we should avoid associating with those in high positions of wealth or influence. But as far as our service to them is concerned, we typically have more obligation to “associate with the lowly,” not because they are more important, but because they are more needy.
And the word translated “lowly” refers to that which is really low; down in the dirt lowly. We are to get down in the gutter with the lowly. It doesn’t mean you ignore those who are the high and mighty; that is, the wealthy, the politically powerful, the influential, the highly educated and erudite. Rather, it means you don’t pursue, chase after, or concentrate on that.
I thank the Lord for those genuine believers who are friends of mine who are highly regarded professional people of wealth and achievement, who are both significant in the world of men and significant in the Kingdom of God. But I also praise the Lord for friends of mine who live right down on the ground level, who seek to please the Lord in their lives, ministering to me, and enriching my life. Believe me, there are a lot more of them than there are of the powerful, mighty, and wealthy. And what Paul is saying is that we are to not be ashamed to identify with those who are poor and needy.
Our feelings are to be so much in line with those who are lowly that we are perfectly at home with people who never rise above ground level. Paul’s point is that there’s no place for aristocracy in the church. There’s no place for an upper crust. We are to be at home with the lowly as well as the rest.
This principle is marvelously illustrated for us in Luke 14:12-14.  Jesus is at a dinner and He sees how the guests are seeking after places of honor at which to sit.  Apparently the host had invited the wealthy and powerful to attend, so look at what Jesus tells him, beginning in the middle of verse 12: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
He says, “You want to know something? You invite the rich, the rich will pay you back. But if you bring over the poor, guess who will pay you back? The Lord will pay you back.”  So the question is, who do you want your reward from? From the rich or from God? It’s nice when you have folks over and they respond and have you over or give you a gift. But their gift can’t match what the Lord will give, so next time you have a dinner, call the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind who could never have you over, who could never pay you back. And learn to be at home, to be carried away with those people who are of low status by the world’s standards.
The truth of the matter is the idea of low estate has nothing to do with spirituality. It is not to say they are low-level spiritually; it is to say that on the social scale they’re at the bottom rung. And I have found from experience that very often some of those people who are low on the social scale are very, very high on the spiritual scale.
If you are to treat everyone equally, there are two things you’re going to have to realize. First, in the church there is to be no social aristocracy, and second, there is to be no intellectual aristocracy. Don’t say to yourself, “Well, I’m so wise I wouldn’t want to have a whole house of fools over, what would I say to them? After all, I need to have people who are at my level.” No, that’s the wrong attitude. There is no social aristocracy and there is no intellectual aristocracy. There is no caste system in the body of Christ. That’s the way it ought to be.
Never, ever get caught up in the trap of saying, “I’m want to attend the church where the rich and powerful people in town go; where there are no money problems, where everyone else looks like me, wears the same quality of clothes I wear, drives the same fancy car I drive, and where I can rub elbows with the movers and shakers of the community.” That is such an ungodly attitude. It runs counter to what Paul is saying here in this verse. Yet I have heard believers who expressed exactly such desires.
Now let’s extend this out further to the unbelieving world. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty by ministering to the poor, the lowly, and the needy. They need someone who will show them the love and compassion of Jesus.
In biblical times, leprosy was the worst of all diseases. When a man was diagnosed with leprosy, he was immediately isolated from everyone else in society. He became an outcast. Unless he was someone like King Uzziah who could live in a separate house, apart from everyone else, most lepers were doomed to living in the local trash dumps, scavenging for food scraps, banned from going near to anyone else. When they walked down the road and someone approached, they were required to call out, “Unclean, unclean, unclean,” so that the other people would turn away and avoid contact with them.
But look at what Jesus did. In Matthew 8:1-3 we have the story of Jesus and a leper, and it was such an amazing incident that all three of the synoptic gospels--Matthew, Mark, and Luke—record this event. The text says, “When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him. And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him (incidentally, Luke tells us this man was covered with leprosy; he had a very severe case), and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”
Did you notice what happened? Jesus didn’t have to touch this man to heal him. In fact, later on Luke tells us that He healed ten lepers at one time and didn’t touch any of them. But here, in front of this large crowd, while everyone is watching, “He stretched out His hand and touched him.” Why did Jesus do that? Because He wanted everyone to see. He didn’t move in close to the guy so that no one else could see and just sort of brush up against him. He didn’t just speak to him like He did with many others whom He healed. Instead, He stretched out His hand and He placed it right on that man who was covered with that horrible disease and He healed him. He was demonstrating His love and compassion for those who were the worst of all outcasts in Israel. He was willing to touch them. He was willing to “associate with the lowly.”
You say, “But Jesus was God; He wouldn’t catch that man’s leprosy. If others had touched him, they may have caught it. So if I start ministering to people who are lowly and have diseases, I might catch something terrible.” Well, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take reasonable precautions, such as wearing gloves when necessary, and using hand sanitizers and a surgical mask, and washing your hands regularly. But don’t let the excuse of potentially catching something be the reason you refuse to obey Christ and follow His example in ministering to those who are infected with terrible diseases.
Let me just add, that if that is a problem for you, then you also have a problem with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Because I will admit that there is always the possibility that even if you take steps to prevent yourself from catching some terrible disease, you might still catch something that will leave you very sick or even kill you. But that’s where God’s sovereignty comes in. He is the One who determines how and when you will die, and until then, He wants your obedience in serving Him and those who are in need. He is sovereign over your life and your death, so until He calls you home, be obedient in ministering to those who are the lowly, the poor, the needy, the outcasts.
One more thing—you will never have a problem sharing the gospel with the downtrodden and the outcasts. Generally they are very willing to listen. They understand that they are sinners; they know they’ve blown it. The rich and the wealthy and the powerful—they are all consumed with themselves and believe that they have gotten their power, wealth, and fame by their own strength, and so they are almost impossible to reach. Jesus even said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But the lowly, the downcast—they know what rotten sinners they are; they know they deserve judgment. So they are usually very willing to listen to the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, and they are far more willing to receive it. So go “associate with the lowly” and bear fruit for the kingdom of God.

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