What St. James warns about in the first reading today is a real temptation for anyone involved in service to the Church. Of course in principle, everyone is equal, and it is not as if the clergy actually desire to ignore the poor and give special treatment to the rich, but there are bills to pay. Not only all the regular bills, but if we want to do any particular service to the poor, we will probably need money to do so. And just like that bank robber who said that the reason he robbed banks was because that is where all the money is, so too the reason we have fundraisers and dinners and other events that cater to the rich is because they are the ones with money to give.
So what should we do? Should we ignore this reading and continue giving special treatment to the rich? Or should we follow this reading and make no distinction between someone who could give the church $1 million and someone who is barely able to give $1? For surely it is not reasonable to expect a person to give $1 million without a little special treatment, dinner in the rectory or a meeting with the bishop.
I do not think that St. James was ignorant of this difficulty. Undoubtedly, there were some very wealthy Christians who were able to provide for the community, and if they are anything like wealthy people today, they probably wanted a little partiality. Perhaps we do not know of any particular cases with St. James, but there is one recorded in Scripture about St. Paul. He converted a rich woman named Lydia, and then stayed in her house while he was working in Philippi. He converted other people in Philippi, but only Lydia gets a special mention. Probably there were other Christians who would have let Paul stay in their house, if they had had houses with room for him. It is not that Lydia was more generous than the others, but that she had more to give.
I do not think that St. James is telling us to treat the rich with less respect. When the rich man comes in with gold rings and fine clothes, we should pay attention to him and say, “Sit here, please.” But then when the poor man comes in with filthy clothes, we should pay attention to him and say, “Sit here, please.” The only solution is to be partial to everyone.