Editors’ note: This manuscript merited one of two second prizes in the most recent Ministry Student Writing Contest.
We live in a world where the saying “all men may be created equal, but some are more equal than others” portrays the harsh reality of our human existence. The gap between the rich and the poor is no narrower than it was centuries ago, creating imbalances favoring one group at the expense of the other. The Epistle of James develops a polemic argument against such practices in chapter 2:1–13 within the context of a faith community, albeit a quasi occurrence of the world.
The admonition against partiality
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism” (James 2:1).1
Thus states the apostle James, one of his great pronouncements of practical Christianity against a sin often ignored by many: the sin of favoritism. The apostle begins by addressing the believers as “my brothers” to arrest their attention to the community of faith in which they are called. He employs a relational language to establish the bond they share as brothers and sisters. The verse thus acts as an imperative2 and a strong prohibition against favoritism. The word translated “favoritism” (NIV) is the Greek prosopolempsia and found only here in the New Testament. The word may also be translated “partiality” (NKJV), “respect of persons” (KJV), “snobbery” (NEB), and “worship of ranks” (TCNT). As Martin Dibelius argues, this “admonition warns against combining the faith with partiality.”3
What James says is that a believer who professes faith in Christ cannot show partiality or favoritism in the community of faith. God is no respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11; Col. 3: 25). Thus, to claim faith in Him while discriminating against others is unacceptable; God does not discriminate; neither should His people.4 It is absurd to believe that faith and partiality are compatible.
Illustrating partiality in action
James further argues the point by giving an example. “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges who have evil thoughts?” (2:2–4). In this section, James deals sternly with the issue of partiality by drawing on an illustration to make his point. Evidently such blatant partiality was occurring in the synagogues either in worship or judicial settings,5 but James is referring not to such synagogue gatherings but to a gathering of believers in Christ (2:1).
The apostle brings to focus two contrasting persons entering the meeting place: the first garbed in gold and fine clothing and the second a poor person in worn-out clothes. Elsewhere in the epistle, James draws similar analogy between those in humble positions and the wealthy (1:9–11, 22–27; 5:1–6). Although he does not say in 2:2–4 that the first person is rich, the description of his appearance and further reference in verse 6 implies such status. The treatment given to the two individuals is an apparent antithesis. In commenting on the behavior of the believers, Roy B. Ward posits, “Partiality is demonstrated in the way these men are seated, based solely on outward appearance.”6 The rich person was comfortably accommodated, while the poor person was handled in a demeaning manner.
James sees this as an unacceptable act. Such an act conjures up an imagery of an enemy subject to a conqueror. The poor man in this incident was despised in a similar manner, unfortunately, by those professing faith in Christ. As Keenan rightly states, “such differential treatment is an example of discrimination.”7 This discrimination in the treatment of two individuals in the faith community was an indictment on the believers. In doing this they were violating the principle of Leviticus 19:15 that outlines how the poor and the rich should be treated. “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” By their own actions, they were making themselves judges and unjustly carrying out the law. The believers were violating the principle of the law that demanded fair justice for all. As Keenan further states, the phrase rendered “evil thoughts” (v. 4) can be “interpreted to mean judges with evil reasoning, who evaluate who is important and who is insignificant . . . based on their social status.”8 Such discriminatory behavior based on appearance, James tells the believers, is tantamount to rendering judgment with evil intent. For people may “look at the outward appearance, but the LoRD looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
God’s election of the poor
The apostle is now ready to make a most interesting shift and render a stern rebuke: “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (James 2:5–7).
By these strong words, the apostle questions their unjustified behavior. As Dibelius suggests, “the author brings two factors to bear against the degradation of the poor and the show of favoritism to the rich: (a) the poor are chosen by God as heirs of the Kingdom of God, (b) but the rich have frequently proven themselves to be the enemies of Christianity.”9 In his agonizing plea to the believers, James seizes the opportunity to affirm the poor. In the ancient world, the poor were seen as people of devalued social means and status, in destitute or near-destitute circumstances, who had failed to maintain their standing in society and fallen to a marginal position in the social order.10 The picture is more than a social dilemma; the poor were totally dependent on others for their survival.
For James, the believer’s lack of affirmation towards the poor was a statement of dishonor to God who had elected them. David Edgar states, “There is consistent evidence within the gospel traditions that socially marginal people were of considerable importance in the ministry of Jesus: they are described as favored, because God’s kingdom is theirs (Luke 6:20; Matt. 5:3).”11 Thus, James was charging those who show partiality toward the rich as acting contrary to God. The community of faith was acting according to the ancient world’s measure of values in which the rich and powerful are shown honor in hopes of receiving from them a benefaction in return. Employing the language that fits within that world of honor and shame, James observes tersely that they have dishonored the poor person.12
The apostle further points to the folly of the situation by showing how they have been mistreated by those who are rich. “James attacked their double-mindedness further by showing his readers that their behavior contradicts not only their faith but also their own experience. They are a community oppressed by the rich. This activity of the oppressive rich will be described even more graphically in 5:1–6. . . . Yet when a poor person enters the assembly, they act toward a community member the same way the rich act toward them.”13
At this juncture, James reminds the believers that most of them are poor, who themselves are being oppressed and dragged into the court by the rich. The word oppress is often used in the Old Testament in prophetic denunciation of the exploitation of the poor by the rich.14 For example, Amos thunders: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?’ skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat” (8:4–6).
Often the rich advanced in society at the disadvantage of the poor. Edgar comments: “Plousios meant rich, having access to a more than average extent of material resources, but access to such a measure of limited resources often implied that others had to do without, were deprived and exploited in order for the rich selfishly to accumulate their extra share.”15 Therefore, the poor and marginal are often treated with injustice at the powerful and influential hands of the wealthy.
James is arguing that the discrimi-nating actions of the believers reflected the oppressive behavior of the wealthy meted out to them. He further censures the believers for taking side with the rich who are “blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong” (James 2:7).
What is this noble name James is referring to? Many questions have been raised as to whom this refers. Traditionally, it has been interpreted to be Christ. Even so, when we look at the Old Testament, such a phrase refers simply to God, Yahweh, because that is the name invoked over the people, showing that they are His possession (Num. 6:27; Isa. 43:7; Jer. 14:9; Amos 9:12).16 As Robert Wall stresses, “If God has called the poor into the congregation as heirs of the kingdom, then their oppression not only undermines God’s special relationship with them but also runs the risk of God’s final judgment”17 (James 2:13). The believers, in so treating the poor poorly, were guilty of siding with the rich and dishonoring God in the process. The believers were “weighed in the balance and found wanting.” The double-mindedness of the community of believers shows that they had fallen short of the standard as established in the apostle’s thesis in verse 1.
Emphasis on the royal law
As James contemplates the situation, he makes his point by appealing to the law: “If you keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (2:8–11). James criticizes the believers by quoting the royal law, taken from Leviticus 19:18. What is this royal law that James is citing? Dibelius asserts that royal law means “the law with royal authority, and or the law that is set for the kings.”18 James’s assertion is no doubt to the royal law of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Thus, to love your neighbor is a law that comes from God, the Lawgiver. The word neighbor is not restricted to one who is rich. The law does not say, “Love one’s rich neighbor.” Jesus said in Matthew 5:43–45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” As the good Samaritan story illustrates, one’s neighbor is anyone in need. A person who claims to live by the law of love yet practices discrimination and favoritism that the law of love forbids has broken the law entirely.19 James denounces partiality in words that cannot go unnoticed: those who are indulging in favoritism are breaking the law. Favoring the well-to-do over the poor in a place of worship is transgressing the law of loving one’s neighbors. Such a partiality is a serious matter, and this constitutes a sin. “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).
According to Cain Hope Felder, “throughout vs. 8–11, there are indications that James considers the law as the basis for the measuring of sin and transgressions.”20 To support his argument, James tied in the unitary nature of the law by pointing out that the commandments “Do not commit adultery” and “Do not murder” came from the same source. These two commandments are singled out as representing the entire torah. Since the entire law comes from the same God, the entire law should be considered royal. For Keenan, “to avoid adultery but commit murder sets a person against the very source of Torah.”21 This example is meant to confirm James’s judgment concerning partiality in the assembly. If they have discriminated among themselves on the basis of appearance, then they have entirely missed the meaning of the law of love.22
Harmony in words and deeds
To bring home his point, James makes a final entreaty to believers: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12, 13). In verse 12 James counsels “speak and act.” That is to say, whatever one professes must be revealed in their actions. Building on his teachings in the previous chapter, James sets into motion the framework of faith in action. He implores the believers to “speak and act” using the Greek imperative mode to emphasize the continual nature of these actions. Believers are commanded to be consistent in their Christian conduct. One test of such consistency is how we act toward the poor, how the motif of mercy reflects the inner reality of faith. In the Old Testament, mercy is a theme demonstrated by caring for the marginalized, oppressed, and social outcasts (Mic. 6:8; Zech. 7:9, 10). As to what happens to those who fail the test of mercy, James in 2:13 provides the answer: “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.”23 In essence, those who do not show mercy will not be receiving mercy in judgment. Allusion can be made to Matthew 5:7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” An attitude of mercy signals the presence of Jesus Christ, the one who always provides mercy. James takes painstaking efforts to reiterate the believer’s breaching of the law in what may seem a simple matter of seating in a worship assembly (James 2:2–4) as having monumental eschatological consequences.
The Epistle of James stems from a community of believers in Christ who were acting contrary to their calling. James counters the partiality impulse of the community by clearly showing that this was ungodly and a breach of the law. If any believer is in Christ, partiality cannot be found in him or her. The believer’s life is one of consistency, where words and deeds are in harmony, and faith and works go hand in hand. Exercise of genuine faith means treating all members of the household of faith equally. James’s focus has profound implications for our contemporary Seventh-day Adventist church and other faith communities that have congregants of varying status and shades of people. Indeed, the church should be a place where the royal law embodies and governs fellowship.
1 All Scripture passages are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2 See W. E. Oesterley, “The General Epistle of James,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 4, as quoted in John B. Polhill, “Prejudice, Partiality and Faith: James 2,” Review and Expositor 83, no. 3 (1986): 397.
3 Martin Dibelius, James: A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975).
4 Lorin I. Cranford, “An Exposition of James 2,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 29, no. 1 (1986): 21.
5 See John P. Keenan, The Wisdom of James (New York: The Newman Press, 2005), 67; Roy B. Ward, “Partiality in the Assembly: James 2:2–4,” Harvard Theological Review 62 (1969): 90.
6 Ward, “Partiality in the Assembly,” 87.
7 Keenan, The Wisdom of James, 68.
8 Ibid., 69.
9 Dibelius, James, 137.
10 David H. Edgar, Has God Not Chosen the Poor? The Social Setting of the Epistle of James (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press 2001), 112.
11 Ibid., 107.
12 The New Interpreters Bible, vol. 12 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 192.
13 Ibid., 192–93.
14 Keenan, The Wisdom of James, 70.
15 Edgar, Has God Not Chosen the Poor? 122.
16 Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997) 118, 119, as quoted in Edgar, Has God Not Chosen the Poor? 72.
17 Wall, Community of the Wise, 119.
18 Dibelius, James, 143.
19 The New Interpreters Bible, vol. 12, 193.
20 Cain H Felder, “Partiality and God’s Law: An Exegesis of James 2:1–13,” Journal of Religious Thought 39 (Fall 82/Winter83): 2.
21 Keenan, The Wisdom of James, 76.
22 The New Interpreters Bible, vol. 12.
23 See Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 117.