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James 2:1-13

September 11, 2017

The very first verse of this chapter is remarkable. The NIV translates it this way:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.

This verse is saying that showing favoritism is the very antithesis of what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. One would have expected James to say: “As believers in Jesus Christ, don’t harm people” or “don’t hate people” or “don’t be violent” or “don’t be abusive.” Instead, James focuses on something that at first seems much more minor and mundane–favoritism. Is favoritism really the most fundamental betrayal of having faith in Jesus? James seems to think so. The NRSV translation is even more pointed:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

In this translation, James is calling into question the very faith of those who show favoritism. Favoritism and faith in Jesus are incompatible. But neither the NIV nor the NRSV translations quite capture what James is saying. The original Greek says neither “believers in … Jesus” nor “believe in … Jesus,” but rather, “the faith of … Jesus.” Let me suggest what I think may be a more literal and accurate translation:

My brothers [and sisters], when you show favoritism, you do not have the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, to show favoritism is to fail to belong to the faith that Jesus Christ shows us; it is to fail to follow Jesus.

But what does James mean by favoritism? What kind of favoritism is going on that James is so strongly objecting to? It’s showing more respect and honor for wealthy people who attend the church than for poor people who attend. To make any distinction between how we treat wealthy people and how we treat poor people is a fundamental violation of Jesus’ teachings and example.

In verse 5 James seems to be alluding to Jesus’ beatitude in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” A central theme in Jesus’ teaching (especially in the Gospel of Luke) is that the poor are blessed by God whereas the rich are in danger of damnation. God’s kingdom brings comfort and justice to those who have suffered unjustly, and it is the poor who are the more likely to come to God in humility and openness. The rich, on the other hand, are preoccupied with all of their stuff and influence, and how to preserve it. They give lip service to God, but often their lives do not demonstrate genuine generosity and love for those in need. They do not live sacrificially but instead protectively.

James points out that it’s the rich who are more likely to misuse them and sue them and oppress them, not the poor.

And yet, it is common for us to normally favor those with more power, wealth, and influence. We want to be around them and befriend them so that they may lend us some advantages. The rich can help us network with those who count. The poor, on the other hand, give us no advantage. They are needy; they may come from dysfunctional family systems and systemic poverty with no easy solutions. We may be afraid of their influence on our children or perhaps endanger us in some way. And so, perhaps, we tolerate their presence at church; perhaps we even treat them with patronizing smiles and congratulate ourselves at our beneficence toward them. But we don’t treat them the way we treat the influential, the college-educated, the culturally savvy.

Showing no partiality is radical, and it’s at the heart of living out God’s kingdom. It totally inverts what we think is important. Instead of seeking our own advantage or pleasure by hanging out with or giving special attention to the movers and shakers, we seek the same flourishing for all by giving the same value and respect to all. This can only happen if we stop giving privileges to the rich.

Wow. That is hard. That challenges an awful lot of our “normal” practices–even in the church. That is a truly upside down kingdom.

The poor are perhaps the group most discriminated against in our society. They are not necessarily hated; they are simply avoided. They make us uncomfortable and give us no pleasure or advantage. But the poor are not the only ones we subtly discriminate against when they walk into our churches. We need to expand equal valuing and equal treatment to the disabled, the mentally ill, and anyone outside our own in-group.

To show no partiality is to live by the “royal law” found in scripture and lifted up by Jesus: love your neighbor as yourself. If we love everyone the same way we love ourselves, then there will be no distinctions.

Verse 10 is often read out of context. I have heard many Christians use this verse as if it’s point is that all sins are equally bad and therefore we’re all equally guilty in God’s eyes. That is not James’s point. (That’s trying to turn James into Paul.) Certainly murder is worse than adultery, and adultery is worse than showing favoritism–if by “worse” we mean the immediate effects and harm done. All sins are not equal when it comes to their immediate consequences, and so we sometimes need to discriminate between “lesser” sins and “greater” sins when deciding how to respond to certain people or situations.

But what James is saying is this: all of the moral laws in the Old Testament are really one law, the law of love, and so to violate any of the laws is to violate love. But that also means that to show love (or mercy) is also the path out of our transgression. God is merciful to us when we show mercy. James is once again alluding to Jesus’ own teachings. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are forgiven only “as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” And in Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, when the servant failed to carry out forgiveness when he was forgiven, he lost his own forgiveness.

I think James’s point is that showing partiality violates love just as much as murder and adultery violate love. But we can be forgiven–just start showing genuine love and mercy.

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