Yesterday was my Easter poem – I heart that poem (here). And Monday was “thank you God” day (here). But sandwiched in there was a sad two part story about a 1st century Christian baker. (here and here).
Now I want share with you how I didn’t just make it all up out of thin air.
The whole story is based on this:
For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? (James 2:2-4)
For me, it was really important to nail this story down because it sets up a whole thing in James. The whole rich / poor thing. It was as big a thing to him as it was to Our Lord, his brother.
So here are the hints from which the story sprang.
James was writing to the “church in the diaspora” – so we set the story somewhere in the Roman Empire where the church was “dispersed”.
It’s an “assembly” – probably a house church kind of thing. If there was a person of means back then, their house would be the prime place to convene meetings.
We have two people – a rich guy, a poor guy. They’re both set apart from all the others – they both have assigned seating. And the rich guy is more than just rich – he’s snooty rich. There is nothing wrong with being rich – the problem is the snooty.
And his clothes? Roman citizens always wore togas. If this guy was rich, he was a Roman citizen. But his toga wasn’t off the rack. The translation above says “fine clothes”. In the original Greek it’s literally, “bright, shiny clothing”. That’s where I get the “silk” thing.
Also these words were the ones used specifically for the prettiest togas of the Roman Senate.
Ooooh, and two more things about “shiny clothing”:
One: when Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate the night before the Crucifixion, he did so in just this type of “shiny clothing” (LK 23:11). He was mocking Our Lord, maybe to prove the point that this ‘common criminal” most certainly was not royalty.
Two: The appearance of angels is described like this. (Acts 10:30)
So we’re talking really bright shiny stuff.
But the snooty rich guy – he’s just part of the problem. The other part is the, how do I put this, the “ring kisser” of the story. The owner of the house who gets all starry eyed in his attempts to ingratiate himself with the snooty guy.
The house owner says “κάθου ὧδε καλῶς” (kathos owday kalos) – literally “Sit here! Gooooooood.” It’s the best seat in the house – and he’s overselling it. He’s a first class brown noser.
And literally, the poor is told to sit “under the speaker’s footstool”. This isn’t realistic – the footstool being about a foot high. So translators mostly think it’s more like saying, “I don’t care just stand over there out of the way or pick a spot on the floor.” This is why, in my story, he ends up actually outside of the house.
That’s the backdrop to the story I made up – tomorrow the hammer comes down, not on the rich guy, and certainly not poor guy, but guess who?