One day you get to school and there are two new boys in your class. One of them has a new pair of “skater shoes” and new clothes that are right in style, the other has a stain in his faded jeans and the shirt he is wearing looks a lot like one you gave away to the thrift shop last year. Which of these boys are you going to want to make friends with?
As you approach your work area one day, you notice a new person in the work station next to yours. He has dark skin and a beard and you learn from some of the other workers that he is Muslim. Your boss comes and lets you know that you are going to have to help him get oriented to the job and work with him on a number of projects. How are you going to feel about that?
One day you walk into church and notice that there is a young lady standing in the corner of the foyer. She is with some of the other young people. She has all black clothes, her hair is died black and she has three earrings in one ear, an earring in her lip and nose and one in her other ear. How are you going to treat her?
Several weeks ago we talked about loving one another and Larry challenged us to consider what that meant in practical terms. In James 2:1-13 we come to a similar concept as we examine what it means to live by the royal law - the law to “love your neighbour as yourself.” James 2:1-13 is written in the context of James 1:27 in which we discussed what “true religion” is. The ideas we will look at today are an extension of that thinking. If we are worshippers and followers of God, that will have an impact on how we treat other people. Love for God and love for others always go hand in hand. James 2:1 lets us know that this is about our life as “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” How do we live as believers in Jesus? How do brothers and sisters in Christ treat each other and others. James gives us some challenging and practical things to think about. In some ways, I am sorry I started this series on James because every week we hear hard hitting words that challenge us. I hope that we will continue to listen to what God is saying and not become discouraged. Today again, we have an opportunity to examine our lives to see if we are really living as believers in Jesus.
James says, “As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” What is favoritism? I like the Greek word that is used here. It can be translated “laying hold of the face.” In other words, it means that we should not treat people differently because of what is on the outside, what is the appearance of things.
James uses an illustration to help us understand what he means. The rich man is obviously rich. In fact, he is ostentatiously rich. He has a gold ring on his finger and his clothes are shining white. In those days, they did not have the fabrics, dyes or washing machines that we have today. If you wanted to get your clothes really white, you would chalk it so that it would shine. This is what people of means did to show that they could afford to take the time and spend the money to get their clothes looking really good. They were probably wealthy enough that they didn’t have to work too much and get their clothes dirty through work. The poor man, on the other hand sticks out because of his poverty. The word for “poor” is a word that indicates a man who is desperately poor. He is in abject poverty. His clothes are shabby, probably dirty, smelly and perhaps even torn. Both of these men stand out, one stands out as obviously wealthy and the other as obviously poor. James is making it simple for us. He is setting up two opposite categories.
When he mentions the potential treatment of the two men, our own thoughts condemn us because we know exactly what he is saying and we know that we do exactly what he says here not to do.
As we read this, we should know that we are meant not only to think about this illustration, but also all situations in which we fail to treat people equally. Not only in our church assembly, but in our neighbourhoods, in our work places and in our school.
What do you think when you drive down Main Street in Winnipeg and see an unkempt Native person walking down the street?
Who would we rather not have as next door neighbours?
How do you treat the poor student who begins to attend your school?
Will you accept a person of another race or religion in your place of work?
What are the barriers we set up between ourselves and others in the church because they are different?
I have to confess that I stand condemned in my attitudes by this illustration and by this command.
The purpose of James is to teach us why we ought not to do this. In verses 5-7, he begins to do so by demonstrating the logic of showing mercy.
It doesn’t make sense to show favoritism, because it gives evidence that we have not adopted God’s values, but are still living by the world’s values. What are the evil motives spoken of in vs. 4? We need to understand what he is saying here. He is not defending all the poor just for the sake of their poverty, but the poor who have learned to depend on God. Poverty in itself is not commendable, but when poverty drives a person to utter dependence on God, that is commendable. The gospels do an interesting thing. In Luke 6:20, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” In Matthew, the same beatitude is spoken by Jesus in a little different way. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is interesting because in Luke, it is the poor who are commended and in Matthew it is the poor in Spirit. It seems to be two different things, but it is really the same. It is often the poor who know that they need help who depend on God and are commended for their trust. They are the ones who, as James says have been chosen by God to be “rich in faith.”
By the same token, he is not condemning the rich simply because they are rich. He is condemning those who have not learned to put their trust in God and as a result, and because they have the power, are persecuting believers. Why does he pick on the rich? The unfortunate reality is that a large percentage of those with means reject faith. Jesus himself said at one point, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The rich are those who because they have everything they need, somehow do not learn to depend on God and often reject Him.
What we have here is a clash of value systems. God’s value system is to bless those who know they need His help and therefore depend on Him. The world’s value system is to bless those who have much of this world’s goods. When we show favoritism for the rich, we are demonstrating that we hold to the world’s value systems rather than to God’s value systems.
To do that is evil. In verse 6, he attacks directly when he says, “you have insulted the poor.” One writer says, “The insult is created when we accept the idea that to be rich and important makes a person more acceptable in the eyes of God than to be poor and destitute.”
The first argument that James presents then is the logic of obeying this command. It is a powerful logic which helps us see and live by the values of God instead of those of the world. This is not an easy thing for us to do and we have a hard time obeying even this logic because we are so steeped in the values of the world. May God help us to see things His way.
The evil of favoritism is further demonstrated when we are told next that it is a violation of God’s law.
The law of love for others is the most fundamental law in the Bible. It is found in the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:18, “…but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.” It is found in the words of Jesus who said in Matthew 19:18, “love your neighbour as yourself.” It is found in the words of Paul in Romans 13:9, “The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The concept is also found in the writings of John. It is the royal law because it is the most fundamental law of the king of all the earth.
It is evident as we come to this verse that the command not to show favoritism is just one application of a larger and more important law and that is this law to “love others.” Jesus demonstrated obedience to this law when he forgave the woman caught in adultery, when he cleansed the outcast lepers, when he healed the centurion’s servant, when he ate with tax collectors and sinners and when he died for all who will come to Him.
Notice also that the verse tells us that it is not the knowing of this law that is good, but the doing of it that is right.
The seriousness of disobedience to this law is shown in what follows. We read earlier that Paul said that the whole law is summed up in this law to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Therefore, if we disobey this law, James tells us, we are also guilty of breaking the whole law. We may be perfect in keeping every law that there is, but if we fail to keep this law, the law to love our neighbour as ourselves, we are guilty of breaking the whole law. That is not to say that we have literally broken every law. What it does mean is that we are guilty before God. It doesn’t take a violation of the worst kind to make us guilty before God. A breech of one command, even the least, and this law is by no means the least, is enough to make us guilty before God. If we fail to obey this law, we are guilty before God - as much as if we had committed adultery or murder. One person writes, “A person cannot wilfully despise another human being and be pleasing to God…”
What a strong word of warning! It is a strong caution against selective obedience.
The warning is strengthened further when we are reminded that a day of judgement is coming. Herb Kopp writes, “Payday is coming.” There is a principle in Scripture which forces us to think carefully about this law. Jesus says in his teaching on the Lord’s prayer that if we do not forgive others when we have received forgiveness, we will not receive forgiveness. James says a similar thing here when he says that we will not be shown mercy by God if we fail to show mercy to others. To fail to show mercy, is to fail to understand that God has shown us mercy and puts us under His judgement.
These warnings are strong. Who of us is free from favoritism? Who of us has always shown love to our neighbour? It almost makes you want to give up. How do we deal with our guilt when we realize that we are all guilty of failing to measure up and will be judged by God. What hope is there for any of us? I would rather not know or preach these words when I read this.
But let us read carefully because there are some very encouraging words here. James tells us that we will be judged by the “law that gives freedom.” He tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgement.” Right now we may not feel very free, but rather condemned. What does this mean?
It is the law that gives freedom because as we feel condemned and come to God for forgiveness, He gives it. We don’t have to love perfectly and obey perfectly in order to receive mercy from God. God’s mercy frees us from the judgement we are under.
When we show mercy, it is evidence that we have understood that we are people who have been shown mercy. How many times have we said of another person, “they should know better” or “why do they keep on sinning in that way?” Do we understand the arrogance of those words? Do we realize that when we say that we are saying, “I have gotten my life together because I do the things that are right, why can’t you.” We take credit for our righteousness. We forget that it is God who has forgiven us and who has made us new by the power of his Spirit. The truth is that when we think like that we are under bondage and need the law of freedom which reminds us that we are accepted by God because of His mercy and that we can show mercy because we have been shown mercy.
We should also be encouraged when we realize that God has given us His Spirit to help us. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are being enabled to obey this law and are slowly learning how to love. The power of God makes it possible to act with mercy.
What are some of the ways in which we need to allow God to teach us to show mercy? In verse 12, we have the practical application of this law when James says, “Speak and act as those who will be judged by the royal law.” What we have learned today requires obedience. It requires action and words that are lived in our life. What are the specifics?
Howard Hendricks tells the following story: “I was ministering in Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. We had a Thursday morning father-son breakfast, six-thirty. It was to be over by quarter of eight. There were many people from the military, quite a few people from various government offices, some craftsmen, laborers of various kind--really quite a mix.
After I had finished speaking and the meeting was dismissed, I looked over to my right, and there was Senator Mark Hatfield, stacking chairs and picking up napkins that had fallen on the floor. Ladies and gentlemen, if you are impressed that you are a United States senator, you don't stack chairs and pick up napkins. If you are impressed that you are God's gift to the body of Christ as the great preacher of this age, you don't stoop to serve. If you are impressed that, really, you are the greatest thing that ever happened to your local church, you do not serve. You live to be served.”
We will learn to live this command when we stop putting people who have made it in the world in leadership positions just because they have made it in the world, and instead give leadership to people of faith. We will obey this command when we stop getting excited because a rich or famous person began to come to church and start noticing the poor person who quietly slipped in the back. When we celebrate the person who has faithfully been upholding the church in prayer for a lifetime as much as the person who has just made a major donation towards a particular project. When we allow people into our circle of friends who are different. When we become willing to have people who are poor as neighbours. When we rejoice that an unbeliever has moved in next door or become our co-worker or been hired by the school because it gives us an opportunity to share Christ.
As we hear God speaking to us today, perhaps we need to change an attitude or perhaps we need to engage in an act of mercy. Let us ask God to be merciful to us and change our heart. Let us ask God to show us how we can show mercy in practical ways.