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Sermon on the Mount
3. Forsaking Favoritism for Love (James 2:1-13)
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2:1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
You have been the object of partiality. Perhaps your mother or father liked you more. Or your teacher or your employer. Because of your special relationship with a superior, you got promotions when another was just as qualified. Or perhaps you have never been the favored one.
You have also been the object of discrimination. Perhaps it was for how you looked -- your height, your weight, your complexion, your hair. Perhaps you've experienced discrimination on the basis of your intelligence, your race, your religion, your gender. Your family's social standing in the community has been a factor, either negative or positive, on how you were viewed by the elite. How did it make you feel?
You may be bearing the scars of those encounters to this very day. It is this huge -- and is the central issue that James tackles in these passages.
"1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here's a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (2:1-4)
You'd think that the church would be a place where class falls away and we are all equal as children at the feet of Jesus. Unfortunately, it wasn't so in New Testament days and it isn't so in our own. James calls on us to recognize the problem and deal with it.
James, leader of the Jerusalem church, had probably seen it in the gatherings of that great Mother Church. A rich person enters and all the elders are kowtowing to him, falling over themselves to honor him with attention, with flattery, with the best seat in the house. Perhaps he'll become a regular part of the church and be able to give big offerings, they think. Sound familiar?
Then a poor man enters on a day when all the seats are filled. His clothing needs mending and he hasn't taken a bath for a while. Stand there, we tell him. There are some seats on the floor at the front, that's all we can offer, we tell him, hoping that he'll find somewhere else to go to church. His presence is an embarrassment. Too many poor people and we'll be thought of as a poor-person's church. It will reflect on us. And they'll expect us to give them things. Sound familiar?
The word translated "favoritism" (NIV), "personal favoritism" (NASB), "respect of persons" (KJV), or "partiality" (RSV) is the Greek word prosōpolēmpsia -- "partiality."1 It is used elsewhere in Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; Acts 10:34 (masculine noun); James 2:9 (verb form). The word is derived from a Hellenistic compounding of two words: prosōpon ("face") and lambanō (I.4. 'to take,' i.e. 'to admit, receive'), that is, to accept a person you know or favor.2
A look at our English word "partial" fills out the meaning: "1. of or relating to a part rather than the whole; not general or total. 2. inclined to favor one party more than the other, biased. 3. markedly fond of someone or something."3
We have three other English words that describe this behavior. The first is bias "bent, tendency; an inclination of temperament or outlook, especially a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment, prejudice."4 The second is discrimination, "the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually; prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment."5 The third is prejudice, from the words "pre" + "judge": preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge; an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics."6
When I read those definitions I think about some of my own knee-jerk reactions to the homeless and to certain other groups. James calls it what it is: sin.
Q1. (2:1-3) What kind of person or what kind of sinner do you tend to discriminate against? What kind of people are you (or your church) trying to make a good impression on?
James asks, "Have you not discriminated (diakrino) among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (2:4). What is the source of the evil? In a word, selfishness.
We treat the rich with solicitude and honor since they have power and wealth, and we hope that by our actions some of that honor and power and wealth might rub off on us. It never hurts to be on the good side of a rich person, you know. Our actions are selfish, self-serving. As Paul said, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Timothy 6:10). Our discrimination is based on our own love of money.
And how about our mistreatment of the poor? Selfish again. We don't want to be pulled down to their level, either social or economic, and don't want to feel obligated to help them. Selfishness, love of money.
Churches are hardly immune from this behavior. It may not be the rich that are fawned over; it may be young married adults with growing families who are perceived as the prize. Single moms and the elderly are tolerated, but often not openly welcomed or courted by calls or visits. We're trying to grow a church, we tell ourselves, and these people form a good social and economic base that allows us to do this. But in the meantime we are guilty of prejudging the poor and the elderly and the divorced. We sin because we look to our own needs and not to theirs.
Q2. (2:4) In what way does favoritism make one a judge? How does favoritism make one a judge with "evil thoughts"?
"5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?" (2:5-7)
"1:9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. 10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. 11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business." (1:9-11)
When you look at this brief Letter of James, you can see that James is stirred up about the subject of the favor shown to the rich. In 2:5-7 he is ironic: aren't the rich the very people who exploit you and try to cheat you in court?
The first few verses of chapter 5 also indict the rich for hoarding their wealth, cheating the poor, living in luxury and self-indulgence, and climbing over the bodies of the innocent poor in order to do so (5:1-6). Those of us who live middle class lives in America are richer than the rich of James' day ever were. What about us?
James' congregation struggled with poverty. Once during a famine, Paul had to raise an offering to help the poor in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8:19-20; Acts 24:17). James is careful to help the poor to value themselves as God values them.
"The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position." (1:9)
"Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?" (2:5)
While the rich seem to have everything in this life, such a view is superficial, says James. Looking with eternal eyes, with Kingdom eyes, we see that the rich will fade away (1:11) and find all their hoarded wealth rotted and corroded (5:2-3). Instead of honor, the rich who have gained their wealth unrighteously will face a judgment of fire (5:3).
These are hard words. But so much of the time we ourselves see with worldly, materialistic eyes. And this blindness to eternal things feeds our partiality and prejudice. We must take off our blinders and see with new eyes, God's eyes.
"If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right." (2:8)
Our King, Jesus, offered us a different perspective, a different law: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
"Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?'
"Jesus replied: ' "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.' " (Matthew 22:34-40)
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)
The center of Jesus' ministry was love -- love for the poor, love for those rejected by society, love for the sick. He didn't come for himself, he came for them. For us.
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Partiality and prejudice and favoritism are essentially self-serving, self-centered. Our King, on the other hand, was essentially self-giving and centered on the needs of others. The Law that governed his life is what his brother James calls the Royal Law: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (1:8)
"9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker." (2:9-11)
But while the Royal Law of love states it most clearly, it is not unique. Rather it capsulizes and condenses the spirit of the whole Mosaic Law. For example, we read:
"The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you." (Exodus 12:49)
"You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the Lord your God. " (Leviticus 24:22)
"One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whether he is a native-born Israelite or an alien." (Numbers 15:29)
Again and again the Israelites are warned to show justice and care towards the poor of the land:
"Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly." (Leviticus 19:15)
"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:11)
The scripture also warns us against injustice in the system, systemic evil:
"If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still." (Ecclesiastes 5:8)
The point is that if we are so concerned about keeping laws, we need to heed the clear laws about partiality in the Bible. "If you show favoritism you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers" (2:9).
Verses 10 and 11 underscore the point. "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (2:10). We cannot be selective in our observance of Jesus' commands. We can't say: I'm such a righteous person, God will overlook this one tiny area. No, we must accept partiality and prejudice as sins, and repent of them. They are evil in God's sight. We cannot hide behind our excuses.
Q3. (2:9-11) Why does James refer to the Great Commandment as the "Royal Law"? How is it more "royal" than the Mosaic Law? How does showing favoritism toward a rich person break the "Royal Law" towards that rich person? How does it break the "Royal Law" in regard to a poor person?
"Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…." (2:12)
In verse 12 is a wonderful expression, "the law that gives freedom" (NIV) or "law of liberty" (KJV, RSV, NASB). James uses a similar expression in 1:25 "the perfect law of liberty." Just what does he mean? The phrase "law of liberty" is almost an oxymoron. Most laws restrict and set limits. But the King's Law liberates and frees. David Hubbard puts it this way:
"Anger and hatred are not freedom. They tie us in knots; they goad us to say and do things we do not really believe in. Love is liberating because it trusts God to be the final judge and encourages us to do good wherever we can."
At its core, this Law that Liberates is not a written code, but the Spirit of God working in our hearts and writing God's ways and words on our hearts. This way our actions begin to spring from a changed heart rather than from a well-trained set of conditioned responses. In a word, we are liberated.
But more than that, we liberate those whom we used to judge. Where we used to show favoritism to our cronies and discriminate against others, now by this Royal Law of Love we liberate the outcasts of society. We show them love and this energizes in them the potential to be all they can be, too. By our love-actions we liberate both our own selves and we liberate our society.
"… Because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!" (2:13)
In our favoritism, we cannot set ourselves up as judges, because at best we are "judges with evil thoughts" (2:4), and we will be judged ourselves. If we don't show mercy, we will not receive mercy. Jesus said that we will be judged by the same measures of judgment we use to judge others (Matthew 7.2).
Rather, we can show mercy. We can let the Royal Law that has liberated our own spirits give another chance to others who have struggled under sin and selfishness. If we judge those people we also judge ourselves. We were there, too. But Christ now, by his mercy, has set us free.
Yes, God is just and will exercise just judgment. We are assured of that throughout the Bible, and especially in the Book of Revelation. But while he is just, he is also loving. He loves to show mercy. In fact, he delights in it.
This causes a serious problem. How can you both be completely just like God is, and, at the same time, be overflowing with love and mercy? Doesn't that make you schizophrenic? This is how God solved it.
Jesus came to give us life and model before us the Father's love. Then he, in his own body, became the ransom for our sins. He took our sins upon himself and became an atonement for our sins, the Greater for the lesser.
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree ... by his wounds you have been healed." (1 Peter 2:24)
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)
And so God is both just -- he punished our sin upon His own Son who took our sins upon him -- and loving, now he forgives our sins freely, mercifully.
It's an old story and a simple one. One by one, God has helped people to understand this simple but profound truth. "This is a faithful saying," said the Apostle Paul, who in his youth had persecuted Christians unto death, "and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief" (1 Timothy 1:15). How can we not show mercy, when we are so dependent upon it ourselves?
And so this section of James' Letter concludes with the words, "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (2:13). The word translated "triumph over" (NIV, RSV, NASB) or "rejoice against" (KJV) is Greek katakauchaomai, "boast against, exult over; triumph over."8
It is our bragging point as believers. Not that God will send people to hell for their sins. He will, but he takes no delight in it. Our bragging point is that our God shows mercy to sinners, and delights to do so. Let us tell the world.
Q4. (2:13b) In what way is showing regard towards the wealthy (2:2-3) a denial of mercy? Extra credit: Read Hosea 6:6; Matthew 5:7; and 9:13. In what way does mercy "triumph over" (NIV, RSV, NASB) or "rejoice against" (KJV) judgment? What does this mean?
Lord, forgive me of my selfish, self-serving partiality in the way I treat and think about people. Help me to love – really love! – the least and poorest in society. Help me to delight in showing mercy – just as you do. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
"If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers." (James 2:8-9)
Mercy triumphs over judgment!" (James 2:13b)
- BAGD 720.
- Thayer 550.
- Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary , 10th edition, p. 847.
- Ibid. , p. 110.
- Ibid. , p. 332.
- Ibid. , p. 119.
- David Hubbard, The Book of James: Wisdom that Works (Word, 1980), p. 39.
- BAGD 411.
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