One issue that plagues Christians is passing judgments based upon physical appearances. The problem of favoritism and discrimination has been issue even back in the days of Jacob and Esau. The Greek word that our translations render, "partiality" or "favoritism" was used by the Greeks in "the consistently negative connotation of making judgments on the basis of a person’s status, appearance, or other external matters unrelated to the merits of a case — in other words, being prejudiced" (BECNT, 136). This is the issue that James is dealing with in this section of his letter.
No Favoritism (2:1)
James begins with a very simple, yet powerful point. Having faith in Jesus and showing favoritism are not compatible. A person cannot have prejudice or discriminate on the basis of a person’s status, appearance, or other external matters that are not relevant to our relationship with God. We live in a world that is full of favoritism and discrimination. People are discriminated on the basis of how they look. People are discriminated on the basis of race. People are discriminated on the basis of status and success. People are discriminated on the basis of wealth. People are discriminated against because they are single, they are teens, or they are elderly. We can be discriminated by our address or zip code. I am quite convinced that we have been discriminated against by the state of Florida in our effort to get disability services to her because of where we live. The world is full of these unfair judgments. If there is at least one community of people in this world where all receive equal treatment, it must be in the church! Who we are according to the world’s standards has no relevance at the foot of the cross. We are equal sinners before the Almighty God. Jesus exemplified this truth while he lived on the earth. Who did Jesus spend the majority of his time with? When we think about the apostles we recall that these were ordinary men. They were not men held of high esteem or status. When we think of the multitudes Jesus spent so much time with tax collectors and sinners that the religious elite condemned him. Jesus did not treat people differently based on their education level, wealth, reputation, or status. Jesus dealt with people for who they were as a person. The scriptures repeatedly tell us that God looks at the heart and does not show partiality (Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9; 1 Pet. 1:17).
Illustrating The Problem (2:2-4)
James takes a moment to explain a present problem or a hypothetical problem that is likely to occur. One can imagine the Christian audience who is hearing the words of this letter responding, "We do not show favoritism! There is no discrimination here!" Before we think this to be the case, James wants us to consider a situation that all Christians deal with.
James pictures two people who come into their assembly. One person is dressed very nicely, with a gold ring and fine clothing. To update the image to our present time, the person comes into our assembly in dress pants, a button down shirt and a tie. He is dressed nicely. To put the point that I think James is trying to put on it, the man is dressed the way we think he ought to be dressed when coming to the assembly for worship. What do we do with a person who comes in dressed this way? James says that we pay attention to him and give him a good place to sit. We greet the person and we welcome him here. We shake his hand and strike up a conversation with him. We usher him to his seat. The second person, however, is not dressed like him. He is poor and he is dressed in shabby, filthy clothing. Again, to update the imagery to today, the man has scraggly hair, bushy beard, and does not look like he has taken a bath in more than a week. His clothes are dirty and torn. He has tattoos running down his arms. The point that James is putting on this is that the man is dressed the way in which we ask in our minds, "What is he doing here?" "The liquor store is down the street. What is he doing here? He is at the wrong place." With the first man James says that we pay attention to him. But with this shabbily dressed man, we do not pay attention to him. We let him walk in and sit down. We do not greet him at the door. We do not welcome him. When he walks by, we act like we are busy doing something else. We pretend we are talking to someone. Or we stare at the wall as if there is something important on it. We walk around the building to make sure that we do not have to make eye contact with him or speak with him.
James now issues the condemnation of our hearts in verse 4. We have discriminated (HCSB) in our hearts between these two people, as if one has a rightful place to be here and another does not. We have passed a judgment, not based upon the person, but based upon a person’s looks. James offers a double condemnation upon us. He says that we have become "judges with evil thoughts." For James to call us judges is quite a condemnation in itself because it is this kind of judgment that Jesus strictly condemned when he taught, "Do not judge, so that you will not be judged" in Matthew 7:1. But not only are we condemned for being judges, but we are judges with evil thoughts. We are far from what God wants our hearts to be. We have passed judgments unrighteously with our evil thoughts. We have committed sin.
Why Favoritism Is Foolish (2:5-13)
James spends the rest of the time explaining why favoritism is foolish and sinful. James gives us a number of points why favoritism must stop.
God chose the poor to be rich in faith. How can we possibly discriminate against the poor? Why would we judge with evil thoughts those who come into our assembly who do not appear to be financially well off? Part of the good news of Jesus is that it is available to all people regardless of wealth or status. Remember in Jesus’ sermon on the level plain that Jesus taught, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20 ESV). Favoritism is wrong because it contradicts God’s own attitude. God’s attitude is that the poor are the ones who are more receptive to the gospel call. They are the ones who are more likely to see their need for a Savior than those who are wealthy and are enjoying the pleasures this world has to offer. The poor have been given the offer to be rich in faith and to be heirs of God’s kingdom. How then can we possibly treat the poor differently? The application of this can be extended to all of our differences. God has called all people to Christ, regardless of race, background, culture, age, weight, or anything else. Every person has the opportunity to the good news.
The rich oppress you. Why would we show favoritism toward the rich? The rich are the ones who oppress you. Essentially, why be partial toward the worldly rich when the worldly rich are certainly not partial to Christians? We have certainly observed the rich exploiting and oppressing others over the past couple years, like Bernie Madoff. We saw this many years ago with corporations like Enron and Worldcom. This exploitation and oppression still occurs. So why treat them better than the poor?
The rich blaspheme the name you wear. Further, the rich blaspheme and slander the name we wear. The rich slander Christians. We see this on a global level today and we certainly see the media and Hollywood slander Christianity. The jokes and slander made about Jesus are considered acceptable, while considered a hate crime if done against Islam, Buddhist, or Judaism. Christians are considered mindless and unintelligent by the rich. Why would Christians show the rich preferential treatment?
Favoritism violates the royal law. When we have prejudice and show favoritism based on simply external things, then we are not living up to God’s royal command. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not want a person to pass judgment on us strictly by our age, color, status, or wealth. So why do we do this to others? We must really fulfill the law of God to love others as ourselves. Treat people the way you want people to treat you.
Favoritism is sinning. James is very clear in verse 9 that showing partiality is a sin. We are transgressors of the law.
Favoritism is not a "small" or "minor" sin. It is easy to think of prejudice as being a harmless act. We would probably think of it as an insignificant sin. But James tells us that if we break any part of God’s law, we are violators of the whole law. We have such a strange concept about God’s law. We think there are sins that are not a big deal. We think there are some commands that can be broken and it will be okay. God says that if you break any of God’s law that you have broken all of his laws. We do not get to pick and choose which laws we are going to keep. This command against partiality is just as important as all the other commands. God parallels this to the commands of adultery and murder. Every law of God matters and every law must be obeyed.
Therefore, we need to speak and act as those who are judged under the law of liberty (2:12). James told us in 1:25 that we are to look into the perfect law of liberty, see our flaws, and make corrections. Understand that we are going to be judged by the law. Therefore we need to look at the law carefully and intently. The law demands that we speak and act without partiality. Don’t forget: judgment is without mercy to those who show no mercy (2:13). This is a common teaching in the New Testament: God is not going to show mercy to us if we are not showing mercy to others. We are acting mercilessly when we act with partiality. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Do not make such shallow estimations. Do not judge people by their externals. Show mercy when it comes to those things. Do not care about race. Do not care about wealth. Do not care about clothing. Do not care about age. Do not care about weight. Do not care about status. Show mercy and do not pass judgment on these things. Otherwise God will be merciless in his judgment against us. The same covenant love that God shows to his people he expects his people to show to each other.