“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts”?” (James 2:1 – 4)
The writer of James poses an interesting question, although I am not sure he intends to. Does belief in the Lord Jesus Christ translate to treating people equally, and not judge them according to their look and social status? That question may have been pertinent and relevant to the readers of James; it is even more so for us today. “Acts of favoritism” run so rampant that people whose only “fault” is being different have been killed. In comparison, the writer of James is writing in a much more “gentler” time. Still though, the sin stands.
“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (Verses 5 – 10)
Do you see, beloved reader, where James himself maligns those who are wealthy and have a greater status in society? It is, for its time, social justice combined with the gospel. Something that gained momentum in the 1960’s and has ebbed and flowed since then. I do not fault the writer of James; but I am also aware that he has a basis.
“For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (Verses 11 – 13)
I admit to being a little baffled by the writer of James’ equating one type of sin with another; both serious but different types of offenses. Perhaps the writer of James wants to be clear that the offense of favoritism is as serious as murder or adultery.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (Verses 14 – 17)
In this passage that we are looking at today, the writer of James has moved on to an adjacent consideration. He started out by scolding his readers for allowing outward appearances move them to judgment of who is and is not worthy. He moves on to reminding his readers that those with power, wealth, and status disregard and oppress the poor and marginalized. He then underlines the seriousness of the offense. Lastly, he exhorts his readers to put their faith into practice. They are to live out the care and compassion that the Messiah modeled for them.
To be fair, the letter from James is not a long one; and perhaps he wanted to cover in broad sweeps the tenets of Christianity as he saw and experienced them. We can get so used to long sermonizing that something brief and concise can seem almost light in theological impact. The images that the writer of James uses, and the considerations he sets forth are worth taking our time and thinking them through. May you do so, beloved reader!