2:1-7 – Once again, James rightly diagnoses one of the commonest failings of human nature: our willingness to judge people at a glance, to treat them better or worse based solely on outward appearances, or on such trivial considerations as wealth and worldly status. The scene James describes is entirely believable—a rich man and a poor man enter a church: the rich man is attended to, given a comfortable and prominent seat, while the poor man is at best ignored, or at worst, told to take a place of insignificance. While contemporary American culture is not quite the same as ancient Greco-Roman cultures in consideration of wealth and class, human nature has certainly not changed. In our egalitarian, cheer-for-the-underdog mentality, we may well not give the ostentatiously dressed rich man preference over the poor person in our congregation, but we certainly do fall into the trap of giving more prominence to persons of fame than is their due, and to ignoring those who are suspected of addictions or mental instability in addition to their poverty. For instance, if New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wandered into our church service, it is almost guaranteed that he would receive far more positive attention than a homeless man who, in his manner of behavior, seemed a little off. But James wants to press us on this point: should we actually be acting in that way? Is there anything intrinsic to the nature of Tom Brady as a human being that makes him more valuable than the homeless man? The clear answer, from Christian theology, is “No.” Now, our church members would of course want to give Mr. Brady a warm welcome and to express our thanks for the innumerable sporting heroics that he has achieved for our little corner of the world; but if we do so, we must take great lengths to ensure that the homeless man too is also given a warm welcome and granted the loving attention that he deserves, simply because he is a fellow human being, created in God’s image and lavished with God’s love. But James doesn’t even stop there: he goes so far as to suggest that, in terms of moral virtue, there’s a good chance that the poor man will be more laudable than the rich. As we already covered in the commentary on 1:9-11, poverty gives one more opportunity for the pursuit of virtue than does wealth, so it’s a decent bet that poorer people will be more virtuous, on the whole, than richer people (a stereotype that modern social science appears to support). So, James says, if you’re going to show special favor to anyone, you should show it to the poor man—such are the ones that God has “chosen…to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom,” whereas the rich are more likely to magnify themselves rather than God, and to greedily sue for even more wealth than they already have. James describes our natural behavior of making assumptions about people based on these appearances of wealth and class as discrimination, and he says that we have “become judges with evil thoughts.” But we are not in the office of judge over anyone else, and it’s a good thing we’re not: we make a rather poor job of it. God alone is the judge, for only he truly sees beyond appearances, to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is this: God does not show favoritism among his children, and so neither should we.
2:8-13 – James continues his point by quoting one of Jesus’ favorite Old Testament commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which the Lord had called one of “the greatest commandments,” and which James describes as “the royal law.” James then makes clear the seriousness of showing favoritism. Many Christians would simply shrug off this behavior, claim that it’s just a natural human instinct to show a little bit of favoritism, and that it’s not really a big deal, as long as we are at least trying to work on overcoming our failure to love all of our neighbors to the fullest extent. After all, it’s not like ignoring the weird homeless guy who makes us uncomfortable is the same as murdering him, right? Hold on there, James says. In a certain sense, it is exactly like murdering him. Loving our neighbors is a law of God in the same way that the commandment against murdering is a law of God. Breaking either one leaves you with the status of a lawbreaker, in exactly the same way. Here James agrees with one of the principles of Paul’s theology: everyone has broken the law, and thus stands in need of God’s grace. But James has a slightly different focus: while Paul immediately shifts from the problem of our status as lawbreakers to the grace offered through Jesus Christ, James shifts to a slightly different point, but no less true: we really ought not to keep breaking the law! So, now that we know that favoritism turns us into transgressors of the whole law of God, one of the things we must do (in addition to accepting God’s grace to right the internal wrongs that we can’t right ourselves) is to stop breaking the law. We must remember that God’s good law is there for our protection, for our freedom, and that our life stands under the judgment of that law. Thankfully, of course, we have the mercy of God, demonstrated through the cross, which “triumphs over judgment.” Though we are lawbreakers, we will not bear the full punishment of our deeds, since Christ has already borne them for us. But because we have received mercy, we too need to be givers of mercy, not of judgment. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “As you judge, it will be judged to you.” If we are being judgmental against others, we need to realize that our own lives will be analyzed in a similarly harsh light one day. James agrees: “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” Though the New Testament is clear in many places that our status of salvation will not be in question at the Judgment, because we are saved by God’s grace through the faith of Jesus Christ; but it is also clear that we nevertheless will also face a judgment of sorts, a weighing of our lives, and a believer who had lived their lives in a spirit of harsh judgmentalism toward others cannot expect to receive a favorable hearing on that day. James reminds us at the very end of the fact that we are recipients of God’s lavish mercy, which triumphs over judgment—should we not then also be merciful toward others?