"Peter opened his mouth and said 'Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality'" (Acts 10.34 RSV) or perhaps in more familiar language "God is no respecter of persons". Peter had a vision on a housetop in Joppa and was led by the Holy Spirit to go to Caesarea. He learned from that vision of animals in a sheet that he was not to discriminate against Gentiles. The revelation was a watershed in the attitude of people to one another; the great turning point in the history of human race. It was not a change in God's attitude to people but a change in human perception of how God wanted those made in His image to behave towards each other. Jesus had prepared the way for this change of attitude when discussing foods with His disciples, concerning people being made unclean not by what goes into their mouths but by what comes out (Mark 7.19)
In the days of the Patriarchs when Joseph was Lord of all Egypt (c 1700 BC) without his brothers knowing who he was,, he entertained them to a banquet, sitting them in order of age. He sat apart from them because "Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews" (Gen.43.32 RSV). Such customs of separation, partly religious, partly social, partly nationalistic, go back a long way into history, evidently before patriarchal days. Nations and groups of people thought of themselves as better, in all kinds of ways, than their neighbours. It seems to be more prevalent in societies which have become more 'civilized'. Religion and social manners affected their habits of feeding and speaking? They became 'refined' and that made them feel a 'cut above' those less 'refined'? Do those of the 'homespun' rural social order tend to envy those who are materially wealthier?
Problems of wealth and social distinction did not seem to affect the behaviour and way of life of Abraham's descendants while they remained, like their great and God-fearing ancestor, simple and nomadic. Once settled in the Promised Land, it was easier to compete with each other for wealth and social status and they began to imitate their foreign neighbours. This brought all kinds of social and religious infections to the people of Israel. The establishment of a royal court and the growing power of a once simple priesthood fostered a sense of social rank and strata. This tragic situation has afflicted almost every nation and society from pre-patriarchal days. Devious means were developed to maintain the status quo among the poor while the rich and powerful climbed still higher. The Law given through Moses did much to prevent this kind of evil within Israel but by the time of the exile, seven or eight hundred years later, the ruling classes had discovered ways and means of breaking all ten commandments while outwardly appearing to keep the Law in all its details. From this sprang national, class and social distinction, racial discrimination and partiality in law. The great empires, ancient and modern, each shouted 'freedom' louder than its predecessors while drawing the cords of slavery tighter (democratically of course) to put the human race in greater bondage than ever before. But evil sows the seeds of its own destruction.
When Jesus came to Earth there was no way in which His grace and goodness would be tolerated by human society. He made His debut in the synagogue at Nazareth by reading Isaiah 61.1,2 and then announced the principles of His Kingdom based on love. These transcended the barriers that mankind had erected. He reminded them that there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah but God's prophet was directed to a citizen of Sidon. He recalled that many suffered from leprosy in Israel in the time of Elisha but he healed only the Syrian general. Jesus had told them the truth yet they tried to throw Him over a cliff. They clung to the idea expressed in Amos in 3.2 "You only have I known of all the families of the earth." ‑ but that text did not give them the right to exclude all others from 'knowing God'. The bitterness of the people of Nazareth was echoed in Jerusalem when Paul addressed the crowd that had tried to lynch him. They listened quietly while he spoke in Hebrew of his experience of conversion but when he told them that God had sent him to the 'nations' they broke out in a frenzy of hatred. Their attitude did not demonstrate that they 'knew God' or that He knew them. If they had known God they would never have hated the 'nations' so bitterly or wanted God to destroy them. They had been designated "a light for the Gentiles" by Isaiah 49 and this Scripture spurred Paul on in his desire to spread the Gospel to all. How much have we learned by Israel's mistakes?
There can be no doubt as to Jesus' attitude towards non-Jewish people. As we look through the Gospels it is interesting to note the kind of people that went to Him. In His loving concern for people He showed no discrimination against foreign nationals, whether they were Samaritan, Roman or Phoenician. He accepted, talked to and comforted a criminal on a cross, prostitutes about to be stoned and those who collected taxes for Rome. An honest appraisal of the Gospels shows clearly that those whom He gathered around Him were not necessarily the rich and influential nor even those whose religious credentials were impeccable. Jesus came to all without discrimination for Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female, as His apostle to the Gentiles was to write in his letter to the Galatians (3.28) nor were there any qualifying codicils to explain how the law of love should be applied. Obstructions and hindrances to men and women, boys and girls, coming to know and love and serve God are of human making and in God's good time will be swept away.
Paul's unequivocal statement to the Galatians is by no means an isolated text to make a point. In Romans 2.11, God's justice is declared and none will escape the retribution which sin brings. Firstly, we must recognise that what the Scriptures refer to as God's punishment does not contain any thought of revenge. The Divine scales have already been satisfied by the work of Christ. Whatever God does is motivated by love and the chastisement is correction and a learning process to discover the way that is right. In the administration of that correction God is absolutely just and fair. We may infer from references in the Bible that it was common for judges to receive bribes, and particular attention was paid to the judges in Israel that they should be fair in judgment and not subject to bribes. None can bribe God for all that we have has come from Him. Therefore, if we would be like Him we too must be absolutely fair and honest and just and transparently sincere in whatever we do ‑ 'without hypocrisy'. Ignorance and thought processes marred by sin prevent us from being as upright as God wants us to be, therefore our continual prayer must be that at least we do to others as we would that they do to us. Or can we do better than that?
The matter of class distinction is raised at the end of Paul's letter to the Ephesians (6.9) where the subject of 'masters' and 'slaves' is raised. Again, the key idea is getting God's viewpoint of such matters. It may be that we believe this problem has vanished in the western world with the abolition of slavery and the outlawing of racial discrimination. The problem cannot be solved until western nations deliberately provide adequate help for all countries that have yet to develop a society in which its population has the necessities of life, even at the cost of lowering their own standard of living. Meanwhile individual Christians and their communities must examine their own position. Does our life style in fact continue to crush peoples overseas? How near to God's view point do we approximate on matters of wealth, lifestyle and the environment which man was given as a stewardship (Genesis 1.26)
Paul writes about God's attitude as an example to us (Col.3.25 is a further reference) but James gives a direct command; "My brethren show no partiality as you hold the faith". He then gives an illustration about two visitors entering our place of worship, and being treated differently because they are differently dressed. Why the double standards? Was the rich man given better treatment with a view to a bigger financial contribution to church funds or were they just afraid of the kind of 'infection' which the poor man brought in his rags? Or did the life style of the rich man fit in with the majority of the congregation? Are we like those animals that reject individuals that are different from the rest of the group? We may have seen an albino 'blackbird' being mobbed by a lot of 'normal' members of the species. What would our reaction be to someone entering our Christian community or fellowship who wore different clothing or hair style or had some other unusual characteristics different from ourselves? Do we reject them, or make them feel comfortable and 'at home'? How does it affect the way we 'hold the faith' and behave toward those for whom Christ died? Do we reject those who have differences of speech and manners? Does gender or age ‑ or doctrine, form a barrier?
We need continually to 'fix our eyes upon Jesus' ‑ what did He do? He illustrated the lesson about who is my neighbour by telling a story. The hero of that story was a Samaritan ‑ implacable enemies of the Jews. Into another parable (or was it an allegory?) in Matt.25, Jesus wove eternal principles of relationships (however we choose to apply that parable). They are eternal principles because there will always be differences between people and not total uniformity. "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me," When we couple these ideas with the words of Jesus to Paul "Why do you persecute me" (Acts 9.4) it follows that our treatment of others is an index to the way we treat Jesus. Are we concerned with labels or a particular human need at this moment?