My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law. So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. (James 2:1-13, NLT)
Human nature is attracted to status. It’s not limited to America, by any means. Believe it or not, you can find cultures are sensitive to status and importance in third world countries. I’ve seen it first hand. In America, however, we are particularly influenced by four markers. The first is vocation. We tend to value or devalue people based on their professions, believing some are deserving of greater respect than others. Closely associated with vocation, of course is education, which could be another classification of status in itself. The second is social status or recognition. Think of it as the social media brand that garners thousands of “likes” and “follows,” compared to the vast majority who live in anonymity. The third is physical appearance. People have two ways to distinguish themselves physically. They can stand out based on their clothing which expresses the latest fashion and the hottest labels. Another way people can differentiate themselves physically is by having the right body type that is muscular and toned with single digit body fat in a nation whose population is largely classified as “obese.” Finally, there is wealth. Wealth is the clearest marker of social status in our culture. Currently we are witnessing the dissipation of the middle class, as the number of those living in poverty increases as do those households that earn over $200,000 per year.
James is not taking issue with those who possess the best jobs, have the best education, who are popular, dress nicely, or look like a runway supermodel. He’s not even taking a shot at those who have amassed wealth. His lesson is directed toward those who show preferential treatment to those who possess status. The word for “favor” in verse one literally means “to receive the face.” James is opposing the tendency (then and now) we may have to make judgments and distinctions based on external appearances. He illustrates his point with a hypothetical situation where two newcomers come to worship in which there is a temptation to relate to the visitors based on their appearance and dress.
Having pointed out the absurdity of such behavior, James relays two reasons favoritism is unwise and unhealthy. First, the wisdom of experience stands against favoritism. Here, he is saying to his readers, “Hold on a minute! Aren’t these the very people who are oppressing you? What do you think you’re going to gain?” In the world of the first century there was almost no possibility of social or economic advancement. The social and economic pyramid was incredibly steep. If the original readers of this letter showed partiality toward the rich, there would be no reciprocity.
Second, both the Old Testament Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus firmly stand against showing favoritism. The “Royal Law,” which I take to simply mean the law which originates from God’s superior status, must be taken seriously, for it condemns discrimination alongside more overt sins such as adultery and murder.
It is important to see that James ends this section with a message of hope. Mercy triumphs over judgment and God’s forgiveness is available to those who are guilty. Echoing the words of Jesus in the Sermon on The Mount, mercy will be shown to the merciful.