By Sam E. Stone
Edwin Markham once said, “We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; now let’s commit it to life.” That is James’s point. In this chapter he insists on consistent Christianity. Spiros Zodhiates observed, “Whenever James is about to scold the believers of his day, he likes to preface the scolding with a word of love, and that word is my brethren. He admonishes in love; he corrects in affection.”
James warned his readers not to show favoritism. In the first century of the church, partiality was already a problem. Even today it is easy for an unspoken caste system to develop within a congregation. All distinctions between rich and poor should be eliminated. Showing partiality was specifically forbidden by the Mosaic Law, particularly in judicial decisions (see Deuteronomy 1:17 and Leviticus 19:15). Peter learned that God himself is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34, King James Version).
James showed how two people from very different socioeconomic backgrounds might receive quite different treatment when attending worship. Favoritism is the root cause. The wealthy churchgoer is dressed in fancy apparel and wears an impressive gold ring. He is quickly ushered to the best seat in the house. The poor man in dirty clothing is relegated to sitting on the floor or standing during the service. When this happens, James declared, you have discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.
Judging by appearances is always dangerous. Some Jews looked on earthly prosperity as a mark of divine favor, while poverty was seen as a sign of God’s disfavor. James reminded his readers that those who are poor in the eyes of the world may be rich in faith. They have high standing in God’s eyes. Jesus noted that a part of his mission was to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). Moreover, it was the rich—not the poor—who were exploiting the Christians. They drug them into court and blasphemed the name by which they were called.
A. T. Robertson noted, “The Sadducees will not even call the name of Jesus when they discuss the case of Peter and John. They refer with contempt to ‘this name’ (Acts 4:17). The disciples rejoiced, however, ‘that they were counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name’” (Acts 5:41). Those who are financially poor are often proved to be rich toward God (Luke 12:21). Jesus said that Heaven belongs to the truly poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).
James identified Leviticus 19:18 as the royal law found in Scripture—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This was affirmed by Jesus as well (Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31-34). If a person shows favoritism, that one is sinning. Andrew McNab observed, “The apostle now anticipates a possible objection. Why make so much of this matter of respect of persons? It is only a single offence, and it is surely not to be taken so seriously. He rebuts this argument by pointing out that the whole law is broken through failure at any one point.”
Love of God and man covers everything. Jesus emphasized this when he gave the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). One teacher declared, “A church of a clique is doomed. A church is only of use when it is open to the people who need the help of the gospel. The church opens its doors to let people in; it does not put up bars to keep them out.”
Every Christian depends completely on God for the forgiveness of sin and the gift of Heaven. This is all the more reason for us to speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom. It is all that a law ought to be (see Psalm 19:7). Albert Barnes added, “In all our conduct we are to act under the constant impression of the truth that we are soon to be brought into judgment, and that the law by which we are to be judged is that by which it is contemplated that we shall be set free from the dominion of sin.”
We all want mercy. We all need it. How we treat others affects how we may be treated by God. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.