READ : James 2:1-13
Jesus once said that there are only two rules for living: love God and love your neighbor. His brother James especially drives home the second part of that royal law.
Let’s start today with a hypothetical case. I want you to imagine that you’re sitting in your church on a Sunday morning when you notice two families who happen to be visiting come into the sanctuary. One of them catches your eye immediately. It’s a mom and a dad and three beautiful blond-haired, well groomed, well dressed kids and they sit down and fill half a pew. And so you turn to your neighbor and say, “Hey, you know who those people are?” And she whispers back to you, “Why, yes, that’s the new doctor and his family. They just moved into town.”
The other family is a single mom and her little girl whose there visiting because her daughter’s in your church’s day care center. They’re not well dressed; in fact, they look a little bit ratty, and I wonder: Which one of those families would you be inclined to go up and welcome after the service is over? Which one would you be most excited to get to know?
Well, that’s exactly the scenario that James sketches out in the second chapter of his letter. Listen to what he writes:
Brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 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, 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,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (vv. 1-3)
This powerful illustration that James uses helps us to start to think about a problem in our churches. And the problem is favoritism, or showing partiality. We begin with the simple point that this is forbidden to Christians, and it’s forbidden to us simply because we are Christians. Listen again to how James opened this chapter, “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we are Christians, our very faith forbids us from making distinctions between people in this way.
Furthermore, James adds a little bit later in verse 9, “this is a sin.” If you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. The word here translated “partiality” literally means to raise up the face toward. It means to regard someone with esteem or honor or look on them with special favor. Now, obviously, there’s no problem with showing favor to people or honoring them or esteeming them. The problem is when you begin to be selective about whom you favor or esteem. If you start doing that, you’re not respecting people; you’re becoming a respector of persons. You become guilty of favoritism and discrimination.
If we show partiality to people, it means we’re setting ourselves up as judges about the relative worth and merit of human beings. We’re evaluating them according to our own criteria of what’s good and bad or important or unimportant, or who has a right to be honored and esteemed. And usually we choose the wrong measures for that: how much money a person makes, how they dress, what kind of job they have, maybe even what race they belong to, or their ethnic background. But we have no right to make such distinctions among people. Every human being is a creature made in God’s image, and therefore has infinite value and ought to be esteemed simply for being human. We dare not set ourselves up as judges and say, “This person’s more important and valuable than that one.”
So showing partiality is forbidden to us as Christians because it’s wrong. And it’s wrong because of who God is and how he has created us. You know, the Bible makes this point repeatedly, especially the New Testament, that God does not show partiality. God is not a God who plays favorites. It’s one of the great biblical truths about him. Listen to Peter reporting back to the church after the conversion of the gentile centurion Cornelius, “Truly I understand now that God does not show partiality.”
Listen to Paul. He writes that judgment will be given evenhandedly to both Jews and Greeks: “For there is no partiality with God.” That’s Romans 2:11. So Peter, Paul, and James all make exactly the same point. In connection with all the major divisions of human society, along the lines of race, whether it’s Jew or gentile, of class, whether master or slave, and of wealth, whether rich or poor, God is impartial. God doesn’t base his treatment of people on racial, social, or economic distinctions.
Now this doesn’t mean, of course, that everybody gets exactly the same thing. It doesn’t mean there aren’t real differences in peoples’ talent and ability. It doesn’t mean that all people are equal. It means that all people are equal in God’s sight, as deserving worth and esteem. All people are equally valuable and important. No one has an edge with God. No one has the inside track to his favor. God is willing to show mercy to any and to all. All are welcome to him. And that’s why our favoritism is so wrong. When we do what God refuses to do, we not only betray the gospel but we blaspheme God himself by bearing false witness to his character. If our churches value some people differently than others, then we are insulting the character of the God whom we claim to serve.
Wow! That’s strong stuff, isn’t it? But that’s what James is getting at. But there’s even more to be said. I love this little story about the emperor Napoleon when he had an enemy commander executed after a battle. One of his generals said, “It’s not just a crime. It’s a blunder.” In other words, “It wasn’t only wrong to do; it was stupid to do.” And that’s the point James makes about our showing partiality. It’s not only a sin; it’s a mistake. It’s stupid. Listen to what he writes in verses 5 and 6:
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters, 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? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
You see what he’s getting at here? In James’ day, it was mostly the poor people, the insignificant and powerless who were responding to the gospel and giving demonstration of the fact that God had chosen them and loved them. And the rich people were the ones who often turned against the Christians and persecuted them.
It’s interesting to note that the man James describes in his hypothetical visitor to worship, the man wearing fine clothes and a golden ring, was probably a Roman aristocrat. The gold ring was a sign of the patrician class in the Roman empire. He may have been a politician just visiting church in order to curry favor with the people who were there. But once he gained office, he was most likely to turn on the Christians and become their persecutor. So James says, “How stupid is this. We’re in danger in our partiality of scorning our natural friends – the poor and the dispossessed – who often hear the gospel eagerly as good news, and flattering and attracting our natural enemies – the wealthy and powerful – who as a rule have no use for the gospel and tend to sneer at God and his Christ. So favoritism is worse than a sin. It’s stupid.
What’s the Christian alternative? How do we behave instead? Nothing new here. It’s simply the same old rule that we’ve always heard. If you really want to fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, James writes, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and you’re doing well. It is the royal law because it’s the law of the king, Jesus himself. Here’s how he put it: “A new command I give you. Love one another as I have loved you so you must also love one another.”
His best-loved disciple John wrote this: “Dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. We love because he first loved us and he has given us this command, whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
So all the New Testament writers agree on this: the one thing every Christian must do is to love. Love our fellow believers. Love our fellow humans. Love our neighbors the way we love ourselves.
Running throughout the southwestern states of the United States and down into Mexico is an ancient roadway known as the Camino Royale which literally means “the Royal Road, the Royal Way, the King’s Highway.” That’s what the law of love is. It’s the royal road that God wants us to walk in obedience to him, our king.
God’s law, you know, is not a collection of rules: “Don’t do this. Do that. Don’t do this.” It is a unity. There’s really only one commandment and every other law is in one way or another a particular application of the basic law of love, love first for God and then love for our fellow human beings. That’s why James can say in this chapter that to break just one commandment violates the whole law. So I wonder, have you ever been guilty of showing favoritism? Have you ever broken any of God’s commandments in doing which makes us guilty of breaking the royal law of love? I know I have, and that’s why I’m most grateful for what James says in verse 13 at the end of this section. The bottom line is this: If we acknowledge our sins, God will forgive them. We have his mercy to thank for that.