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Based on Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10,14-17 and Mark 7:24-37 (Year B, Proper 18)
The lectionary passages today all bring us the same message. Jesus -- or as Isaiah writes, the coming of the Lord -- restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the one whose tongue is tied. But the message is obviously intended not just for those who are totally blind or completely deaf. The message is for all of us who too often fail to see clearly, hear distinctly, or speak out when we should.
According to James, we have a bad habit of evaluating people based on superficial and unimportant characteristics, of seeing with our worldly eyes instead of with our God-opened eyes. Even Jesus falls into this trap in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. She had four things weighing against her: gender (female), religion (Gentile), origins (foreign), and the location where she lived (Tyre). (The HarperCollins Study Bible notes that the region of Tyre, northwest of Galilee, was “despised” by Jews.) But Jesus’ initial reluctance to share his gifts with her is quickly overcome. He sees past her superficial characteristics and recognizes a neighbor.
James warns us against treating people differently depending on how they look or the size of their bank accounts. But stuck in our old ways, without God-opened eyes, we often do notice riches and poverty. We notice who is stylishly dressed and who is not. We notice expensive cars and large houses. According to James, if we show partiality based on someone’s wealth or lack of wealth, we sin.
Film makers are masters at using visual clues to create a character. Clothes, hair style, general appearance, car, house or apartment, obvious signs of wealth or poverty, and many other small signals are very carefully chosen to quickly tell the audience about a character. Usually within the first few minutes of the film we “know” a lot about the major characters. We easily understand what the visual clues are signaling to us.
But these judgements based on unimportant, external clues are just what the biblical writers are warning us against. Making the leap from observing someone’s looks, possessions, and wealth to making a judgement about their character and their value is what James is calling a sin.
In the U.S. today, it is hard not to notice the impact of poverty and wealth. Inequality is at a record high. The middle class is shrinking. Some 45 million people live in poverty and another 60 million people have incomes below what experts believe to be a minimally adequate level. (Poverty counts for each state are here) In total, about one-third of the population has too little income. Many others worry about their finances.
But although millions struggle, the United States is a very wealthy country. Over the past 40 years as wages for many have fallen or stagnated and inequality has climbed, the economy as a whole has continued to flourish. Resources are plentiful. But when they are not shared with all God’s people, the result is inequality, a condition that prevents us from living lives of wholeness as intended by God.
Such a grave situation with such severe consequences might spark outrage and urgent efforts to make changes. But little has been done and the situation is getting worse every year. Might it be that we see poor people through the world’s eyes – as less valuable, as less deserving, as complicit in their fate?
Suffering people are all around us. They wait on us in stores and restaurants. They care for our children and elders. They wash our cars, manicure our nails, and clean our office buildings. Do we see them with God-opened eyes, as people of infinite value who are being mistreated by an economic system that permits wages to be too low, work hours to be too few and variable, and dignity on the job to be optional?
Picture a person who washes cars at a car wash in Los Angeles. What do you see? Now consider this: Among the 10,000 people working as car washers in LA, roughly one-fourth are (illegally) paid only in tips while those who do get a paycheck are paid very little.
Imagine a woman who works in a nail salon doing manicures. Who do you see? Now add this to the picture. In New York City (and probably other cities also), the vast majority of people employed in nail salons are (illegally) paid below minimum wage and sometimes they are not paid at all.
On this Labor Sunday, consider some of the other factors that workers and their families struggle against.
- Many of the poor are working but they earn too little to get out of poverty. Among the poor age 18 to 64, just over one-third is not available to work because they are retired, going to school, or disabled. Among the other two-thirds who could work, 74% are either working or looking for work.
- The federal minimum wage, $7.25/hour, has been unchanged since 2009 and is far too low. A minimum-wage worker earns just $15,000 in a year if she works full time but many low-wage jobs are part time. (See your state’s minimum wage and current state efforts to raise minimum wages.)
- Many people live paycheck to paycheck. A study by the Federal Reserve Board found that 47% of households could not cover an unexpected expense costing $400 without borrowing money or selling something.
- Some 43 million people, including more than 80% of low-wage workers, do not have paid sick days. They either work when sick (and when family members are sick) or take home a shrunken paycheck.
With God-opened eyes, may we begin to see our struggling sisters and brothers more clearly and recognize that they are people of infinite worth being abused by a harsh system.
The passage from James not only warns us to show no partiality to the person in fine clothes but also reminds us that faith without works is dead. We are called to stand with our neighbors to correct workplace abuses. We need reform of our labor laws. We need to support workers’ right to form unions. We need to stand with workers in their struggles for higher wages. With our God-opened eyes, can we see we need to step up and help change the system? To get more involved, consider joining the UCC Economic Justice Movement.
 In the U.S. in 2013, 45 million people (about I in 7) were poor. The official poverty level income in the U.S. is about $24,000 for a family of four in 2013. Anyone with an income below this level is considered to live in poverty. But many experts think a minimally adequate standard of living requires about twice the poverty-level income or about $48,000 for a family of four. In 2013, one-third of people in the U.S. (106 million) had income below this minimally adequate level. U.S. Bureau of the Census http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/2013/tables.html
 Economic Policy Institute http://www.epi.org/publication/poor-people-work-a-majority-of-poor-people-who-can-work-do/
 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/2014-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201505.pdf