2:1 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11 The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker. 12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
For James, our deeds speak the truth about us. That’s a prominent theme throughout his letter. If we do what is evil, we prove ourselves to be unbelievers regardless of what we may say or think about ourselves. James chapter two continues the theme of authenticity and the importance of faithful activity from chapter one by stating, “My sisters and brothers, when you show favoritism you don’t hold to the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” (James 2:1 my translation).
James gives an example regarding a rich person and a poor person who come to the congregation of believers where preference is shown to the wealthy, while indifference is shown to the poor. The rich person is kindly offered a seat of honor, while the poor person is either told to stand or commanded to sit in a place of submission at the feet of another.
James then demands that we listen to five questions. One easy thing with the Greek language is that we always know the answer to rhetorical questions depending on which negative particle is used. One makes the answer to the question always positive, the other makes the answer to the question always negative. For these five questions, James uses the particle that makes the answer positive. So there’s no doubt as to what he’s telling us. (1) Yes, God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. (2) Yes, God has chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he promised to those who love him. (3) Yes, the wealthy make life difficult for you. (4) Yes, they are the ones who drag you into court. (5) Yes, they’re the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism.
It’s important that we remember the 1st century social context when we read these questions. When James looked at the early church, he saw a lot of people who were poor. Paul saw that, too, and wrote, “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28 CEB). This tells us that the early church was mostly made up of poor and people who were just getting by (there wasn’t really a middle-class back then).
God doesn’t like partiality. God likes equality and fairness. In fact, God demands equality and fairness from us, and that goes back to the law of Moses. “You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly” (Leviticus 19:15 CEB). James knew that the way we treat others comes from how we have judged them as worthy or unworthy of our kindness and respect.
Any judgment we make that shows partiality toward those whom the world counts as more socially acceptable or desirable over the poor or marginalized is evil. Our internal judgments result in our external actions. If we show favoritism, then it proves that we don’t have faith in Jesus Christ.
The Proverb we read today says, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both” (Proverbs 22:2 CEB). All people are created in the image of God. To dishonor anyone is to dishonor the God who created them. Whenever we show partiality and belittle someone, in a way, we belittle the God who created them and loves them. James declares that it’s impossible for a person to claim to be a Christian yet show no concern for the poor. His proof for that argument is that God shows incredible concern for the poor.
James then moves into a discussion of the law. He mentions three laws: the law of Moses, the Royal Law, and the Law of Freedom.
If we’re trying to follow the Law of Moses, we have to keep the whole thing. If we break one part of it, we’ve broken the whole thing. The Law of Moses teaches over and again that the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the orphan, the widow—basically anyone who’s poor or vulnerable—must be cared for. In the Law of Moses, God requires that those with means must provide for the poor and vulnerable. Those who don’t are lawbreakers. The Law of Moses requires that judgments be made without favoritism or partiality. Those who show partiality or favoritism are lawbreakers.
The Royal Law is actually part of the Law of Moses. It comes from Leviticus 19:18 and was quoted by Jesus: “…you must love your neighbor as yourself…” (CEB). Jesus taught that whole of the law and prophets can be summed up in two things: love God and love others. If we love God, then we will love others, because that’s what God does! When we love our neighbors, we’re proving that we love God by showing love and mercy to those whom God loves.
Then, there’s the Law of Freedom. James tells us, “There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment” (James 2:13 CEB). It sounds very similar to what Jesus said: “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you” (Matthew 7:1-2 CEB, c.f. also Luke 6:37-38).
The Law of Freedom acknowledges that we are each free to act in whatever way we want. That’s our exercise of personal freedom. But, there are consequences to our free actions. It’s kind of like Karma: what we dish out to others is what we will receive from God. The way we judge others is how we will be judged. If we judge poor people with partiality, as unworthy of kindness or equality, well, God will judge us as unworthy of kindness or equality. If we do not show mercy to others, we will not receive mercy from God. Jesus teaches a parable about that in Matthew 18:23-35, if you want to give it a read.
What we sow is what we shall reap. God shows mercy to the merciful, just as God forgives those who forgive (c.f. Mark 4:21-25 and Matthew 6:12). There will be a judgment, and the Scriptures of the New Testament tell us that we will be judged according to what we do and say (Matthew 3:10; 7:1-2; 7:19; 12:36-37; 16:27; 25:31-46; Romans 2:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; James 2:12-13; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23; 2:26; 14:13; 16:11; 18:6; 20:12; 20:13; 22:12).
James then moves to the question of faith and faithful activity. He poses two questions, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?” In Greek, we know the expected answer to the second question is No, which answers the first question. Faith cannot save us. Faith without faithful activity is inadequate. Faith without faithful activity is not the faith of Jesus Christ.
To illustrate his point, James gives us an example. “Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (James 2:15-17 CEB).
When I was in school at Duke, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas had a poster on his door with the words, “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other” (Mennonite Church). And, every year, Divinity School students would tell him that they didn’t like that poster because they didn’t think anyone should kill anyone. And Dr. Hauerwas would shrug and say, “Well, they do call it a modest proposal.”
I think the example James uses here is a modest proposal for true faith, because he uses the example of how Christians might respond to the needs of a fellow Christian. James wouldn’t limit our faithful activity to other Christians, but his example highlights the truth that, if this is how any Christian would treat another Christian, then such a person probably is not treating the rest of the world’s poor the way God wants us to, either.
For James, words mean little when there’s no action to back it up. Our action or inaction reveals our belief or disbelief in Jesus Christ, regardless of what we say or think about ourselves. True faith results in faithful activity. Dead faith doesn’t do anyone any good: not the poor who don’t get what they actually need to live, and not us because “there will be no mercy in the judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy” (James 2:13a CEB).
So, James tells us about three laws, and showing favoritism against the poor is one way to break all of them at once. (At Bible Study on Tuesday, Mike Rynkiewich suggested my sermon title could be, The Three Laws and How to Break Them. I think that title would have worked).
On the other hand, the way we fulfill all three laws at once is to show love and care and mercy for others through faithful activity. No one wants to have dead faith. At the end of the day, our actions matter. They matter to others and, they matter to us. What we do or fail to do for the most vulnerable people among us reveals what we think of their worth, and how we have judged them. In every way, we should speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. We’re all guilty of sin. So, James tells us, we should show mercy to those who need mercy. It’s how we’ll receive mercy in the judgment, because mercy overrules judgment.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay