Passage – James 2:1-11
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 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? 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 guilty of 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.
For many of us, when we think about partiality our minds go back to middle school or high school. We think about “the cool kids” and everything everyone was willing to do to please, and thereby try to become one of, the cool kids. We think of all the advantages that came with being socially elite. That was partiality, but if it’s our primary reference for making application of this passage, we will likely miss James’ primary point.
We want to read James’ letter in its original context so we can understand James’ primary point. Then, once we understand what James was trying to say, we want to make application to our lives and our times. That means we’ll come back to the cool kids. But first, we want to explore this passage amid the challenges its first readers were facing.
Evaluating the Social Dynamics (v. 1-4)
As you enter this passage, don’t think of going out to eat at a five-star restaurant where the most wealthy guests get to sit next to the indoor waterfall and get their drinks topped off first. In that setting, everyone is getting an immaculate meal and a high quality of service, even if “the elite” get a slightly better experience.
Instead, imagine yourself as a waiter at a one-star restaurant in a bad part of town living day-to-day off the tips you hope to receive each day to support yourself and your family. This is more akin to the readers of James’ letter. In this context, if someone comes in overdressed, you’re thinking, “Jackpot tip if I do a good job on this table!” That’s the temptation James is addressing, even if you don’t see this response as a temptation (i.e., morally problematic) yet.
First, notice how James describes Jesus, “the Lord of glory” (v. 1). These believers would have known Jesus as the poor itinerant preacher who was crucified just a few years ago. Churches, at this time, were not large, impressive brick buildings. Equating Jesus with earthly success would not be on their radar. James is contrasting glory (God’s approval and standing out for moral excellence) with affluence (material blessings). James is, thereby, redirecting their aspirations.
Now observe the hypothetical scenario James uses to illustrate his point: an affluent man comes to church. James is cautioning against these believers seeing moments like this as an opportunity for professional advancement. In effect, “Don’t think a rich man equals an opportunity for a better job and begin treat him as your ‘Get Out of Poverty’ card.”
Let’s not get distracted by the actions of preference James sites in his illustration. Where someone sits doesn’t impact anyone’s soul. Let’s do ask: What would make these expressions of partiality “evil” (v. 4)? That’s what we should really want to know, more than first century hospitality faux pas. At least two factors contribute to this James calling these actions evil.
First, preferential actions view their fellow believers as competitors. “Somebody here’s getting a better job. If someone else is nice to this guy first, it will be them not me.” Subtly, within that temptation, is the expectation that their fellow believers would be selfish. It doesn’t occur to them that if their friend gets a better job, works hard, and does well, they would put in recommendations for other church members. Partiality, innately, has an “every man for himself” instinct.
Second, notice that in this illustration the rich man is not a soul in need of a Savior, but a means to a better life. If the affluent person is coming to church, they are looking for something. But these believers, instead of trying to get to know the rich man’s spiritual need, are trying to leverage this chance encounter to advance their personal career.
We begin to see why James would call this mentality “evil” and why he makes his next point.
Honoring Everyone Equally (vs. 5-7)
James transitions with the observation that, to the degree that God shows partiality, he tends to gravitate towards the poor (Deut. 7:7). James is not ignoring the reality of poverty. James is not trying to convince us that there is some sense in which no one is poor. James isn’t advocating for a fairy tale; he’s explaining what true faith looks like.
James then describes the relationship between faith and poverty; more people who are poor embrace Christianity than those who are rich. According to Jesus logic in Matthew 19:24, where Jesus says it is more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom, this makes sense. Those who are poor must rely on God for everything because there are relatively few things they can make happen on their own. The poor have more practice trusting God.
Within the theological reasoning of this passage, we should conclude that the relationship between poverty and faith is a correlation not a causation. To use a classis example, there is a correlation between eating ice cream and the rate of crime. Both happen in more frequently in the Summer when students are out of school without supervision and the not temperature adds to people’s anger. But eating ice cream doesn’t cause someone to be a criminal; there is just a correlation between the two activities.
Similarly, God isn’t showing partiality towards the poor to “balance the scales of history” against rich people. The harder road to faith isn’t punishment from God for their affluence. The experience of being rich creates a façade of self-sufficiency that makes it less likely someone will see their need for a Savior. When it comes to being an heir to the kingdom, being poor is an advantage over being rich.
Notice that the verb that is the antithesis of partiality is honor (v. 6). The opposite of partiality is to treat everyone with equal honor. From the verses above, that would mean treating the rich unbeliever as a soul in need of a Savior rather than ticket out of poverty. It also means viewing your fellow believers as teammates and family members rather than competitors for opportunities. Honor means seeing people as people instead of doors or obstacles.Honor means seeing people as people instead of doors or obstacles. Click To Tweet
As we will see many times in this letter, James is not afraid to call a spade a spade. He outright says that that it is the rich who are oppressing these displaced Christians (v. 6). James is not disparaging all rich people, as if having money made them bad. He is merely naming another correlation and using the correlation to help these believers see the futility of showing partiality. In effect, James is saying “Partiality is wrong because it doesn’t honor the image of God equally in all people, and it is ineffective because even when you do it, you’re schmoozing people who are taking advantage of you.”
Finally, James sobers these believers to how the sin of partiality pollutes their Christian identity. The rich, when they oppressed the poor, blaspheme the name of Christ (v. 7); that is, dishonor the image of God in these people. That is the name by which we are all saved (Acts 4:12). Giving preference to those who blaspheme the name of Christ demonstrates our identity has shifted from being a member of God’s family to striving after being an ascending citizen of this world.
Identifying the Gospel Implications (v. 8-11)
James roots what he has been saying in the Second Great Commandment (v. 8). Everything he has been saying is important because it is simply “Loving our neighbor as ourselves” (Matt. 22:37-40). But notice how he describes this command: royal. This is in keeping with the values of this passage: “poor” people are honored by acknowledging that, even if poor, Christians are heirs to the kingdom and the “second” commandment is honored by recognizing it was given by the King.
Seeing partiality in light of the Second Great Commandment deconstructs the logic these believers used to defend their actions: “No one was hurt. I was just trying to get a leg up. Can you blame me for trying?” James would respond, “Even if no one was harmed, you are still violating one of the top two rules your King gave. That’s serious.”
If they responded, “But I’m keeping the big one. I’m seeking to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I’m still going to church. Shouldn’t that count for something,” James would reply, “You’re missing the entire point. You can’t selectively obey God’s commandments and Jesus be your Lord. If you’re deciding which commands are worth obeying Jesus is not your Lord.” This is why James would say if we break one law, we are accountable for breaking every law (v. 10).
To illustrate this, James makes a direct allusion to Jesus’ teaching on murder (anger) and adultery (lust) in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-30). James is reminding these believers that while actions are more tangible than motives, God is more concerned about motives than actions. Good actions with impure motives do not impress God. We are not free from sin if we succumb to greed by showing partiality in socially acceptable ways.We are not free from sin if we succumb to greed by showing partiality in socially acceptable ways. Click To Tweet
If James stopped this section at verse 11, it would be heavy and feel hopeless. But he didn’t. He uses the same counter-intuitive logic he’s been applying to wealth and poverty to judgement and mercy to cultivate hope and further illustrate why change is needed.
If you ask any good coach, teacher, or manager whether judgement or mercy creates better results, they will give you the same answer: in the short-term judgement (high standards and high accountability) wins, but long-term mercy (high standards with much grace) wins. This is the motivational equivalent of Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
In the same way that riches seem to be the best, short-term means to a satisfying life, judgement seems to be the way to squeeze the most out of life. If that were true and that was what God was really like, we would all be doomed. But just like contentment, regardless of our financial status (I Tim. 6:6), is the key to a satisfying life; mercy wins the raise like the turtle over the rabbit.
Now that you’ve studied this passage with an eye to its original context, think back to “the cool kids” reflection. How does this passage teach us to recast that dilemma (assuming we weren’t one of the cool kids)?
- Our partiality to the cool kids caused us to miss that we had something they needed, the gospel.
- We devalued the gospel when we held the cool kids in such high esteem.
- We longed to have what the cool kids had instead of offering them the hope we had.
- Even when mistreatment by the cool kids made our life worse, we stubbornly valued of status as being what would make our life “good.”
- We would compromise the biblical values that undergirds God’s law to pursue status.
- It wasn’t until we learned that the social status game of middle and high school was futile and meaningless, that we really found life (Luke 9:23-26).
As these things become clear to us, we realize that James wasn’t scolding his friends for their preferential treatment of the rich. James was trying to liberate his friends from the emotional and relational bondage that comes with showing partiality.
- Think back to middle school and high school. What are the best (i.e., worst) examples of partiality creating emotional relational bondage? In other words, what are the compromises you look back on with regret and a bit of embarrassment?
- In your own words, how does show partiality dehumanize those who have want we want? How does it dehumanize those who lack what we value most?
- If someone said to you, “Showing partiality doesn’t hurt anyone,” how would you help them understand the implications of this passage?
- Explain what is meant by, “Good actions with impure motives do not impress God.” Where in your life do you most need to apply this?
- When it comes to motivating yourself or those God has given you authority over, where do you need to apply the principles of “Mercy triumphs over judgement”?
- If the adult you could talk to the middle school you in light of this passage, what would you say? If the middle school you was going to point on where this passage is still relevant to the adult you (snarky little version of you), what would you say?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.