James is one of those Biblical authors who doesn’t pull any punches. And in James 2, he has a lot to say about the sin of prejudice, which was just as prevalent in his day as it is in the world today. If we are going to follow Jesus’ teachings, we must not show personal favoritism (v. 1-4). In fact, “faith in Christ” and “partiality” are incompatible. The word “partiality” in Greek describes someone who makes a snap judgment about another person’s worth or character based solely upon outward appearances. There is no attempt to make an accurate assessment of character, just a snap judgment.
In verses 2-4, James gives an example of this type of partiality in action. The usher in the synagogue must decide where to seat two individuals: one a rich, well-dressed man; the other a poor, dirty beggar. In James’ day, Jewish society was extremely conscious of social status; the usher had a real dilemma on his hands. He escorted the rich man to one of the better seats, and asked the poor man to sit on the floor beside him. Apparently the greeter had a seat, but he wasn’t going to offer it to this beggar. From God’s perspective, judging people based upon external, non-character-related considerations alone is not only unkind…it is downright evil.
Are you ever guilty of showing that kind of superficial partiality? Do you ever make judgments about people based upon outward appearances alone? I think it’s safe to say that all of us struggle with prejudice in some area. Prejudicial feelings are usually transmitted through our home environment, and can take on a number of different faces, including race, dress, economic background, etc.). As Christians, we should know better than to make such superficial distinctions. But James is not content here to merely instruct us on the morality of favoritism. He goes on to outline at least three reasons why prejudice is wrong. Prejudice is inconsistent with God’s methods (v. 5). From God’s perspective, the real issue is not wealth or poverty, but the condition of one’s soul. God looks at the heart. He doesn’t discriminate on the basis of our bank account, or any other such external factor.
In verses 6-7, James gives us a second reason we should avoid prejudice: it ignores the universality of man’s sin (v. 6-7). The irony is that the people to whom James originally wrote were exalting the very ones who tended to exploit them, and drag them through the legal system. As a class, the rich tended to be oppressors of the Christian community rather than helpers. Let’s set the record straight. Whereas the rich may have some comfort advantages over the poor, they are not immune to the problem of sin. In that department, they are just as much in need of God’s grace as are the poor. You see, sin is the great equalizer. It ignores class, race, and gender distinctions. Sin levels the playing field. It afflicts the rich and poor alike.
James gives a third reason we should avoid favoritism. He tells us that prejudice is inconsistent with God’s Word (v. 8-11). James is saying, in effect, “Partiality, which discriminates against one person in favor of another, on the basis of external concerns alone, is a clear violation of a Biblical commandment.” Such judging is contrary to God’s will for our lives. The moment we exercise such frivolous favoritism, we are positioning ourselves against God.
Having laid that foundation, let’s complete James’ train of thought: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (vs. 12- 13). James’ point seems to be this: One day, when we each stand at the Judgment Seat of Christ, we are going to want God to deal with us with great mercy. We are going to want Him to assess our words and deeds with the fullest possible measure of compassion. But how can we store up the mercy which will be so urgently needed in that day? James’ answer is simple and thrilling: We can store up compassion for the future by showing compassion to others today! Your mercy, displayed here on planet earth, in this context (by avoiding favoritism), will triumph over God’s judgment in the next.
Application / Challenge
Which one of these do you most need to work on?
- Identify the one area in which you are most prone to prejudice.
- Admit to God that this prejudicial attitude is evil and deserving judgment. Ask for God’s forgiveness.
- Determine by God’s grace to avoid all expressions of partiality in the future.
- Thank God for his unmerited favor toward you.