Comments on James 2:1-13

13 Jul
Continuing our discussion of the book of James, today we enter into chapter 2, a chapter which has been at the heart of the controversy over this book through the years. The chapter divides very clearly into two sections. Verses 1-13 revolve around the issue of favoritism among Christians and verses 14-27 focus on the necessity of good works as evidence of true faith. The subtext in both sections is the issue of rich and poor which we have said (along with trials and wisdom) is one of James’ key themes.
Understanding poverty and wealth in the ancient world is no easy task. This is more and more true as the years go by and we continue to move away from an agrarian economy. So much of our experience of economics is vastly different than the ancient world. While we may sense in our country a growing gap between rich and poor, there is still a much larger middle class in our world than what existed in Bible times. In addition, we can’t forget the spiritual significance granted to poverty and wealth in the biblical world. Many people believed that riches were a sign of God’s blessing so that the rich were looked at as a cut above even spiritually. Finally, we need to understand that the context of chapter 2 is the gathering of believers. The principles about favoritism explained here certainly have a broader application to our world at large, but we should still confine the bulk of our discussion to the gathering of believers, who together by the way they handle favoritism mark themselves as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
The passage has a fairly straightforward outline . . .
1. Favoritism Condemned (2:1)
2. Favoritism Illustrated    (2:2-4)
3. Favoritism Rejected        (2:5-11)
4. Favoritism Replaced       (2:12-13)
So let’s get into the text . . .
 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
The word translated “partiality” (or “favoritism” in many translations) is a rare Greek word in the New Testament, used elsewhere only in Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 3:25. In each of these cases, the point is made that there is no favoritism with God. This case in James is the only time this word is used in the New Testament to urge people not to show favoritism. Of course there is a connection between this passage and the others that use this word. Those reading this letter are “brothers and sisters”, so as followers of Jesus they should emulate His character. We remember Jesus in the gospels eating with the tax collectors and sinners, talking with the Samaritan woman, touching the leper, welcoming the children. So if our Lord acted with such disregard for the societal norms of class or status, how much more should we as His followers disregard such things? It is those who are holding the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ who are to show no partiality. This Jesus is the Lord of glory, a subtle pointer to God the Father, with this reference to glory. The glory of the Old Testament was the manifest presence of God in the tabernacle and temple. Now Jesus has come and tabernacled among us and we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. James then gives the motivation for not showing partiality a theological flavor. Partiality is condemned because it does not reflect the character of God. In verses 2-4, James illustrates this partiality.
2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
The illustration James chooses in order to explain the evil of partiality revolves around the response of believers to rich and poor. Two people come into the assembly, one rich and one poor. The word “assembly” is not the word often used in the New Testament for a local church gathering but is the same word used for a Jewish synagogue. This has caused some scholars to question whether James had in mind a church meeting or some kind of legal dispute in a court. A good argument can be made either way but I lean toward the assembly here being a local church gathering and the word synagogue being used mainly because James was among the earliest New Testament books and this language for the assembly would have been normal for Christians from a Jewish background. On a more personal level, the contrast between the two people could not be more stark. On the one hand a man enters with a gold ring and fine clothing and the other man is shabby and poor. James tells us if we treat with greater respect the rich man, giving him a place of prominence while we put the poor man in a lowly place, we have become judges with evil thoughts as we have made such distinctions among ourselves. So the issue of showing favoritism among rich and poor is a matter of sin. In society, it is expected to honor the rich and ignore the poor. But in the Church, all are to be honored. We really are to be a different kind of people, not given to the class distinctions so prominent in our society. We need to recognize here that in the Jewish culture from which the church in Jerusalem emerged, such class distinctions were common and ingrained. Because there was the idea that God blesses the wealthy and because synagogues could be blessed through the wealth and benevolence of rich members, there was a temptation to give special honor and respect to the rich in the synagogue in the hopes that they would bring prestige. If we are honest, it is no different today. Many churches even aim their outreach strategies and even their locations at the wealthy, the stable, the ones who seem to have it all together. I have often thought (cynically I admit) about how church planters in America so often target the suburbs, where the well-to-do live. Few church planters relish the opportunity to plant churches in housing projects or transient neighborhoods. At the same time, it is clear that established churches often work within these same boundaries as we try to woo members who we believe will keep the budget strong and resist giving our attention to those who are needy. We must confront the subtle and not so subtle ways we make distinctions in the church because as disciples of Christ we are called to love all believers without distinction. In the next section, James grounds is illustration about rich and poor in theology, making it clear that favoritism is to be rejected.
5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
Verse 5 is shocking because at first glance it seems to approve what is condemned in verse 1: favoritism. It seems God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. If God has chosen in this way, is this not a form of favoritism? Why would God condemn us for something He is doing? In reality, this passage is not saying that God has chosen all poor people to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. It is those who love Him who are part of His kingdom. So this isn’t a blanket statement that all poor people will be saved. What is in view here instead is the principle of reversal so common in Scripture. Just as few selections will suffice . . . “The first will be last and the last will be first. The greatest among you will be your servant. God has chosen the foolish things to shame the wise. I will boast in my weakness that the power of God might be manifested in me.” And not only the words of Scripture but the personalities of Scripture illustrate this principle of reversal. Abraham the childless man will become the Father of a great nation. Joseph the slave will save the world. Moses the murderer will lead Israel out of the Promised Land. Rahab the harlot will deliver Israel’s spies to safety. Ruth the Moabite widow will be great-grandmother of the great king. Barren Hannah will be blessed to give birth to the great prophet-priest Samuel. David, the youngest and lowliest of the sons of Jesse, will be anointed king. Solomon, the son of the woman with whom David committed egregious sin, Bathsheba, will be Israel’s greatest king. Josiah, the boy king, will bring revival to the land. Esther will rise from the king’s court to deliver the Jews. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, brings revival to Nineveh. Jeremiah, the fearful prophet prone to depression, will pen the message of the promise of the new covenant fulfilled in Christ. The twelve disciples, among them a hated tax collector, a political revolutionary and a bunch of ordinary guys, will be Jesus’ change agents in the world. Their impact has been immeasurable. The women who followed Jesus, disregarded by most of their society, were privileged to be the first witnesses of His resurrection. And these first readers of James, Christians from a Jewish background, scattered by persecution, yet following Jesus. God loves reversals. He loves to take nothing and make something. In this way, He is not showing favoritism to the poor, He is choosing the poor to show that He makes no distinctions but accepts all people who come to Him by faith. If God chooses the poor, the lowly, the Mary Magdalene’s of the world with a checkered past and no future, then He can choose me, He can choose you.
James scolds His readers for turning away from the poor in light of the grace of God which caused us to be born again due to nothing good in us but by His grace alone. In fact, James says we honor those who abuse us. He charges his readers with being infected by the same worldly spirit that causes Christians today to be enamored with celebrities (even celebrity pastors). What we so rarely realize James brings home to our hearts . . . we are being used. The rich are willing to go to court. The rich are oppressing you and dishonoring God. Just as James would not say that all poor people are chosen by God, so all rich people are not evil and worldly. There are biblical examples of people who had wealth (Abraham, Job, Lydia) but were also godly people. But in general in James’ day it was often the case that those who were rich wielded power ruthlessly and did what they could to hold on to what they had. This too has changed less than we would like to admit.
In verses 8-11, James brings the issue down to a simple choice . . . will we make distinctions among our fellow believers or will we live by the royal law to love our neighbor as ourselves? Our neighbor is anyone in proximity to us, anyone whose life we might touch. So if we steer clear of people because they are needy we are failing the test of neighbor love. If we try to get next to the rich person because of what they might give us but neglect the poor person, we are failing to walk in neighbor love. And this is the royal law, the law of the kingdom, what Jesus called, along with the command to love God, the greatest commandment. If you love God and neighbor you are walking in obedience to God. If you fail to love your neighbor, you are walking in disobedience. This makes you a transgressor of the law. Keeping the law, walking in obedience to the law, is an all or nothing thing. The law is a whole thing, you have to keep it all. It’s not enough to be free of adultery if you are a murderer. So you begin to feel here the crushing burden of the law. We all know ourselves to be transgressors. We can try to deny it but we know it is true. We lie, we boast, we lust, we steal, we do all sorts of things and think in all sorts of way that dishonor God. So if we are going to life out what God has worked in, as we saw last week, we must have some different basis than law-keeping. We must have some different power than our own effort, because our own effort never produces lasting results spiritually, except to take us farther from where we need to be. So if we are transgressors, marked especially by the ways we make distinctions between ourselves and others, what is the answer? How can we escape this trap of favoritism? Verses 12 and 13 give us the answer.
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Here we have the “law of liberty.” Is this the same thing as the “royal law” or is it different? I believe it is different. The “royal law” comes straight from Leviticus and is followed by descriptions of two of the ten commandments. The flavor of verses 8-11 is decidedly condemning. We feel the need to keep the law and if we do keep it we do well. But the problem is we don’t keep it because it is a whole thing, if we break one part we break it all. So the royal law, while in its standards is good and flowing from the nature of God (thus “royal”) does not bring freedom but bondage. And living by this law and living by our performance of it will inevitably lead us regularly to one behavior: comparison. And our tendency to compare will lead us to judgment. And judgment will lead us toward making distinctions among people. And distinction will lead us to favoritism. So as we live under the law we see not only our own inability but our own souls also become soured as we seek to grasp for self-worth through elevating ourselves above others. Inevitably we will be filled with either pride or despair based on how we match up with others. So what is the solution? The solution James gives us is to live by the law of liberty. There is a way that brings freedom, not freedom to do whatever we want but freedom to joyfully do what God calls us to do . . . to care for orphans and widows and to keep ourselves unstained from the world. How can we possibly be people that live by the law of liberty if we know we have fallen so short of God’s standard? There is only one way. We must be recipients of God’s mercy. And we can receive God’s mercy because we have one who perfectly fulfilled God’s law and then died in the place of every sinner who trusts Him. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. His name is Jesus and He is the fulfillment of the law and the fountain of mercy. And now, having been so graciously forgiven by such a glorious Savior, we are able to freely extend mercy to others and live in a merciful way toward everyone around us. We are freed up from the comparison game, where we judge people by clothing and cars and beauty and race and status. We are freed up from the performance trap where we spend our lives trying to figure out whether we have satisfied God enough or whether we have made our parents proud or whether we are good enough. There is one who has satisfied God and we’re not Him. But He lets us live off His track record. So relax. The one who bore the wrath of God in His body on the tree also said, “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am meek and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Mercy triumphs over judgment. So because we have received mercy from God we live mercifully toward people. We don’t hold people in judgment, we are quick to forgive, we don’t make distinctions based on status.
In this passage, favoritism has been condemned as being unworthy of followers of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. Favoritism has been illustrated in our interactions with rich and poor and we have been challenged to remember that God loves working contrary to worldly expectations and societal norms. Favoritism has been rejected as being central in an approach to life where personal performance is exalted even as its inability to provide lasting hope, joy or fulfillment is shown time and time again. Finally favoritism is replaced in this passage by a focus on mercy, both the mercy we have received from God and the mercy we give to others, and even to ourselves. Throughout the passage we see the great change in our outlook on life which comes through faith in Jesus. We have nothing to earn, we have nothing to prove, we have been loved so well we are free to love. When we live in these realities, our lives take on a quality which makes us unique, like salt and light in a self-obsessed world.

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