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Studies in James: wrong values, 2:1-13


James 2:1-13


Studies in James

We dishonor God,
by a fascination with wealth and position.

MY, BRETHREN, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;  3And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:  4Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?  5Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? 6But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?  7Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
8If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.

10For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

Study of the Scriptures—

Entreating the rich,
Mistreating the poor.

Passing judgment on ourselves as well
This chapter integrates both how and why we treat others as we do, as well as the larger notions of law and the need for mercy.  Repeatedly, the evocative address of brethren is used.  James is kind in what he says, but his words are pointed. Brethren, we disgrace the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ whenever we fawn over others, exhibiting partiality or favoritism.  In fact, such proclivity is worldliness. 

Imagine this scenario.  A dignified man comes into your services; he is well dressed, complete with gold rings. A poor man also comes into your services; he is dressed in shabby clothes.  You fawn over the well-dressed man and even say, “Seat yourself here at this distinguished place,” but to the pauper you say, “Stand over there, or sit near the floor on my footstool.”Such flagrant partiality reveals something about yourself, doesn’t it?  Have you not, in fact, passed judgment on both rich and poor? and have you not reached your verdict because of an evil motive?Give heed, beloved brethren— has not God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith?  Has not God chosen the poor to be heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?  Yet, by your partiality for the rich man, you have despised the poor.

Even from the perspective of common sense, it is not the poor who unjustly use force or authority to crush you; rather, it is the wealthy who harass you and even bring you into court.  They are the very ones who blaspheme the noble name by which you are called.

No higher law, no baser conduct
(2:8-9) However, if your gestures of respect can be traced to the royal law, that is well: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  A royal edict, by its very nature, supercedes all other injunctions and circumstances.Yet, if your partiality is because of a baser motive — the hope that you yourself may somehow profit.  If you entreat the rich because he is rich and despise the poor because he has nothing to give you but shame and want — if you do this, you sin and stand condemned by the law as a transgressor.

Mercy triumphs over law
(2:10-13) The law itself is a whole, not a partial.  To disregard a single point is to disregard the whole notion of law (and to disregard the Lawgiver as well.)  For he who says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” also says, “Thou shalt not commit murder.”  Yet, if you avoid adultery, but commit murder, you clearly have become a transgressor of law even though you have not done everything the law forbids.  Your murder is no less murder because you have not committed adultery.  The law is an unified whole; it is the expression of one will.
So speak and act as those who ultimately will be judged by a law of liberty, a law of unconfined choice, rather than imposed restraint.  Such a law by its very nature is liberal and large-hearted.  Contrary to such a law is a judgment without mercy.  Our failure to show mercy means we cannot expect mercy to be shown to us.  In fact, mercy triumphs over judgment, over legality and letter of law.     . We cannot be actors who talk about God as part of some performance before an audience.

Questions that touch the heart

  1. The scenario of rich man — poor man may be an exaggeration, much like the mirror metaphor in chapter one.  (After all, none of us literally look into a mirror to see if our face is clean, and when seeing it is not, then simply ignoring the blemish and go on our way.)  To return, though, to the scenario of rich man — poor man, we may not actually do as James describes, but there is something we do, and that something has rather sinister implications.  We may not actually say to the rich man, “Sit here,” or say to the poor man, “Stand there,” but wealth and status can affect how we treat others.  According to James, why are we influenced by money and position.

  2. There are really two notions here— one is that of  showing favoritism over another; the other is that of favoritism itself.  What is the difference when we fawn over a rich man when a poor man is also present; what is the difference between that and fawning over a rich man when no poor man is present?

  3. Favoritism is one of the favorite words of modern times.  Often, the notion is associated with a sense of egalitarianism, a sense in which all standards of distinction between people must be removed.  According to egalitarianism, no person is above another, or below another.  There can be no distinctive achievement.  The lowest achievement must be equal to the highest.  In fact, any hierarchy is considered elitist.  Does Scripture share this modern notion of  all things equal in every way?  Are there no distinctions among peoples, classes, or roles?  Hint:  How does Luke address the recipient of his gospel (1:1-4)?  How does Jude describe ungodly men (8)?

  4. What does it mean to call a code or rule of conduct a royal law?  Can one divine commandment really supercede another?

  5. Why does it mean that mercy triumphs over judgment?  How might mercy and our treatment of the poor man be intertwined?

  6. Another modern but pejorative term is stereotype.  The word literally means to make a generalization of a class of things, much in the same way the word tree or duck might refer to a general category.  After all, when we call a pine tree a tree, we are not saying that all trees have leaves and bark like an evergreen tree.  Yet, there are similarities between a pine, an oak, and a palm tree.  Is stereotyping necessarily something that is wrong?  For instance, how does Titus describe the Cretan people as a whole (1:13)?  Does James stereotype the rich as a class?  or the poor as a class?  How closely is modern thinking aligned with biblical standards?

  7.  How is it possible that if I commit murder, I am as guilty before law as if I had also committed adultery?  Does James mean to say that murder is no less wrong than adultery?  What is James saying?

  8. What are the two motives I might have in fawning over the rich man?

  9. How important is courtesy?  Can courtesy become a form of fawning?  Are manners something superfluous and elitist?  What happens to a culture that disregards the distinction politeness brings?  How might the notions of egalitarianism and poor manners go together?  How am I to treat the rich man?  How am I to treat the poor man?  I mean , am I to treat the poor man or the rich man without any distinction as to their position (or need) in life?

  10. What is there in poverty that may bring us closer to God?  Can poverty shape our faith and character? Can prosperity ruin our faith and character?

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