On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at the Lincoln monument in Washington, D.C. which resonates even to today. “I have a dream…” Luther would exclaim and then proceed to describe his dream for America at large. One aspect of that dream was that his children would not be judged based on race and skin color but that they would be judged “by the content of their character.”
James, half-brother of Jesus and historically the bishop of Jerusalem, has a dream for the church in the first century which resonates even to the church of the present-day. James’ dream is of a church which does not judge a person because of their riches, rank, or race, but that all Christians would show no partiality toward one another. The Lord Jesus Christ did not show partiality (Luke 20.21) and those who hold their faith in Him will do likewise. Indeed, this is a divine attribute which God calls His people to walk in. James’ Jewish readers would no doubt know Leviticus 19.15: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” There is a principle in the word of God of which James reminds his brethren.
James 2.1-7 (ESV)
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,
3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,”
4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?
7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
Once more, James regards his readers as his “brothers.” What is communicated is a sense of family and partnership. “We are in this together.” This, too, is a habitual title used by James for his fellow countrymen and fellow Christians. By physical and spiritual heritage, they are brothers. Once more the shepherd heart of James is seen and he works to correct his brethren’s wrong thinking and practice. James will use “partiality” or “favoritism” (HCSB, NASB, NIV, lit. “receiving the face”) to seemingly tie together the faith one professes and the works which he/she does which we read about towards the end of this chapter. But first, James calls upon his brethren to cease and desist in making distinctions and showing preferential treatment to individuals based on external circumstance – wealth, social class, rank, and/or race.
The Principle (v.1): The focus is on faith in Christ and holding fast that faith. In fact, the imperative in this verse is not “show no partiality” but “hold the faith.” This faith’s object is “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (NASB). James here attributes the same Shekinah glory of YHWH God to Jesus. So once more, as was seen in 1.1, James puts Jesus on par with God Almighty. In fact, one scholar says this construction is similar to when Jesus said the He is “the way, the truth, the life.” Hence, James sees the Lord Jesus Christ as simply “the Glory.” Based on the foregoing section which dealt with “pure and undefiled” religion before God, James no doubt is speaking of the Christian religion. Part of the Christian faith is imitating and mimicking the Lord. As He showed no partiality while on earth, so His followers (disciples) show no partiality among men. James now develops this idea with a series of questions for his readers.
Question 1: Haven’t you made gross distinctions? (v.2-4) He begins with a hypothetical situation. Perhaps, though, it was not as hypothetical for these Christians as for us. This may have been something James had seen far too often take place in the synagogue (Gk sunagogen). He had been in far too many meetings with his brethren and had seen this far too often (v.6-7 seems to indicate this is really going on). Here enters a rich man – he has a gold ring on his finger (lit. gold-fingered) and with splendid (lit. bright) clothing all of which indicates his opulence. Then here enters the poor man – no ring and in shabby (lit. filthy) clothes. Both of these men, visitors the same, walk into the synagogue to hear the Law read, to worship, to pray. But how they are treated is very different.
The rich man is given special attention and looked upon with favor. He is given the proverbial “best seat in the house.” This might have been seat near the front, by the rostrum, or even on an elevated place draw great attention to him. The poor man, on the other hand, is treated poorly: he is not offered even a chair but told either “stand over there” or “sit at my feet.” This is degrading and disgraceful! More than that, these Christians have “become judges with evil thoughts.” This is not godly or Christ-like. These evil thoughts have lead to unjust distinctions among men. James’ question is rhetorical then: of course you have done this! Thus, truly Christian behavior must flow from a wholly Christian heart and mind.
Question 2: Hasn’t God made a choice? (v.5) Again, the pathos of James bleeds from the pages of Scripture as he pleads with his “beloved brethren” to “listen!” He then reveals a principle or truth which his readers should have been very familiar with: “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom”? Again, a rhetorical question: yes, He has. The “poor in the world” seem to be those people who are destitute, without wealth. They stand juxtaposed to the “rich in the world.” By worldly standards, they are poor; before God, they are “rich in faith” which is invaluable and far superior to any worldly good. In addition, they are heirs of the kingdom. Their inheritance is the rule and reign of God in their lives and forever more. This reign of God is a sure promise from God. If anyone loves Him, they become heirs of the rule of God in their lives.
It would seem that this is a reminder to the readers. Perhaps they were a church composed of the poor who had responded to the gospel. So the rebuke is somewhat striking: what if God treated you the way you treat others? Further, there is a blessing attached with the impoverished. Jesus in the sermon on the plain said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs in the kingdom of God” (Luke 6.20). It is the poor who have the gospel preached to them during the earthly ministry of Jesus (see Matt 11.5). There seems to be a predisposition toward faith in God and Christ if you have not the wealth of the world. My mother says, “When you give a man who has everything Jesus, you’ve given him nothing; when you give a man who has nothing Jesus, you’ve given him everything.” So, why the distinction, brethren? Why are you keeping them from the kingdom when God has made their journey easier or shorter than the rich?
Question 3: Aren’t the rich oppressing you? (v.6) Besides all this, James reminds his brethren of the reality of the situation and the irony of it all. The rich are oppressing these Jewish Christians and putting them in dire straights. The rich are dragging these Jewish Christians off to court to bring slanderous accusations against them. So these are the people they honored while they dishonored and treated shamefully the poor.
Question 4: Aren’t the rich opposing Christ? (v.7) And if personal oppression were not enough, James reminds his brothers that the rich are also speaking evil (i.e. blaspheming) against the name of honor, that is, the name of Jesus. So these Christian slandering, Christ swearing rich people are the very same people these individuals these Jewish Christians were treating honorably all the while the poor fellow is treated shamefully. I believe it is important to note that James is not necessarily condemning the good treatment of the rich. Christians are commanded to “turn the other cheek” when slapped (see Matt 5.39). However, James is using that action to condemn the shameful treatment shown to the poor by his brethren. That is the injustice James seeks to rectify. How are you going to treat those who hate the kingdom better than those who are not far from the kingdom? If you are going to treat the rich well, in likewise manner, treat also the poor well. After all they are elected by God to be rich in faith and enter the kingdom.