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Friday, October 9, 2015

FAVORITISM, PREJUDICE, AND MERCY (James 2:1-13)

Introduction

In the first chapter, James introduced his themes of this epistle. He used a paranetic (exhortative and persuasive) teaching style to teach Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and later hearers and readers. James spoke about enduring trials with God’s help. By doing that, the person would grow toward completion and perfection in Christ. He spoke, too, about being rich in the world and being rich as an heir of God’s kingdom. One other theme James exhorted the people to do was to put their faith into action, be “doers” and “hearers” of the Word. James stressed a balance exists between the spiritual and physical life. One’s spiritual life must affect that person’s physical life. Christ taught His followers to live out the two greatest commandments during their lives.

With the beginning of chapter two, James specified actions, words, and attitudes each Jerusalem Christian should do, speak, and think/feel if Jesus Christ was his or her Lord and Savior. In the first half of chapter two, James taught against the sin of partiality/prejudice. Let us now turn to the first thirteen verses of this chapter.

The Teaching

Verses one and twelve through thirteen specify the lesson James taught. The first verse is the negative statement of it and verses twelve through thirteen the positive restatement of it. Notice James began and ended with the teaching. This noted for his hearers exactly what he taught them. Besides visiting the orphans and widows, being quick to hear, bridling the tongue, and putting aside filthiness and wickedness, here James taught about showing mercy by being impartial. The spiritual virtue of mercy must become a part of each believer’s character before the person can reach perfection and completion in Christ. Here is where James showed a balance must exist between the spiritual and the physical sides of a person. It shows, too, faith in action. James juxtaposed extremes of life in Jerusalem to teach this lesson – the rich man versus the poor man.

Verse 1 says, “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” The word “hold” in this verse comes from the Greek word echo. It means to have in hand or posses in one’s mind, to adhere or cling to someone, something, or thought/faith[i]. The word “faith” comes from the Greek word pistis and means conviction of the truth of anything or belief; the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, and provider of salvation along with the conviction Jesus Christ is the Messiah[ii]. “Glorious” comes from the Greek word doxa and means majesty, splendor, and magnificence[iii]. The word “favoritism” James used comes from the Greek word prosopolepsia and means partiality based on the outward circumstances of man and not his intrinsic merits[iv]. If we understand each of these words from their original text, the following is what James taught in verse one. “My fellow Christians, do not adhere and cling to your convictions about our majestic and magnificent God and Jesus the Messiah with an attitude of partiality toward a person whose outer appearance appeals to you. That would be partiality.”

The Example

The Situation.

Verses 2 through 4 use a common practice of first century Jerusalem - preference given to rich over the poor. Remember James most often used the term “rich man” to refer to an unbeliever. Yet in this passage, we must note he spoke about a rich person who was a Christian, a man of “your assembly.” The partiality shown to this person, James said, came from the person’s outward appearance – clothes and jewelry. So James compared the attitudes and actions of a person showing favoritism towards a wealthy person and prejudice against the poor person. Here James spoke about material wealth.

Let us look at these verses closer. James said,
For it a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? (James 2:2-4 [NASB])
The word “poor” in verse three comes from the Greek word ptochos and means destitute of wealth, influence, position, and honor[v]. We read in this passage James spoke not of believer and unbeliever, but of material wealth, power, and position in society when he taught about the rich man and the poor man. James said when a person pays special attention to a rich person - looks at the rich person with high regard based on his or her wealth, influence, and power - and gives that person a “good place” to sit, but tells the poor person to stand or sit at his or her feet, a personal distinction occurs. The word kalos is the Greek word for “good” and means excellent and honorable[vi]. The place the discriminating Christian told the poor person to be put him or herself, in this passage, showed the person’s consideration of the poor man. Sitting at a person’s footstool showed subjugation of the person. The word “footstool” comes from the Greek word hupopodion and means to subject or reduce a person under one’s power[vii]. Biblical authors often used hupopodion as a metaphor. It comes from the practice of conquerors placing their feet on the necks of their conquered enemies. The act of placing someone at one’s feet is subjugation. Subjugating a poor person while seating a rich person in a place of honor shows favoritism and discrimination by the usher. James said it proved the person/people made distinctions and became judges with evil motives or intentions.

What could be evil about this action? We know from our own hearts and from seeing it happen or experiencing it ourselves, when partiality/discrimination occurs, a person generally gives high honor and regard to the rich person to gain that person’s favor for any future requests or needs the rich person can give him, her, or them. Today’s terminology calls that “currying the favor” of someone with influence and power. James said these actions showed “evil motives.” Paul said in Acts 10:34, “God is not one to show partiality.” He wants everyone to follow Him.

The Reality.

James said in verse five, “Listen my beloved brethren, did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” We must first understand the distinction James made between poor and rich in this verse. He did not speak about the rich in material things. He used the Greek word “plousios meaning “rich.” This word is a metaphor for abounding in Christian virtues and eternal possessions[viii]. We know James meant this metaphor for the rich person because he said “rich in faith,” not in material things. With this understanding, we must read this verse as the poor of this world (materially poor) God chose to be rich in faith – abounding in Christian virtue and eternal possessions – because they are heirs to God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ.

Does this mean God does not choose the materially rich people of earth? It does not. When each person looks within him or herself that person will recognize and realize his or her poverty of spirit. That person will realize he or she is not in truth wealthy because his or her wealth will rust, mold, or decay, but true wealth from God is eternal. Jesus spoke of this person in Matthew 5:3 when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When a person recognizes his or her poverty of spirit that he or she does not possess the one thing that gives life its abundance – a relationship with God, Jesus calls that person blessed in the knowing and in the seeking and receiving salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Every person is poor in spirit though not every person is poor in wealth. When a person receives forgiveness from God and salvation, they inherit eternal life in God’s kingdom. Eternal life does not fade away with age. It makes a person truly rich – a wealth that surpasses physical life on earth.

James continued to teach that the person or people who dishonored the poor man by discriminating against him or her are like the rich (non-believer) who oppress people. He reminded the Christians how the rich (non-believer) dishonored them by oppressing them and dragging them to court. James said, too, the rich of the world (non-believers) blasphemed the excellent name by which they people called them - Christian. Remember, the title “Christian” arose when non-believers in Antioch threw supposed insults are believers in Jesus Christ. They termed the name “Christian” to refer to Jesus followers (Acts 11:26).

James implied in these verses that the Christians of the assembly chose to honor the rich in their assembly. When doing that, they dishonored the poor of the church. By doing this, the prejudiced Christian oppressed the poor members and blasphemed their name of “Christian” because he or she did not act out his or her faith towards every Christian brother and sister. Knowing James taught the Jerusalem church faith without works is dead, we must understand what James taught as the alternative to these discriminatory actions.

The Godly Alternative.

Verses 8 through 11 explain James’ teaching on how each person of the church should act. It goes beyond that to include actions toward every person – Christian or non-Christian. James said in these verses,
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. [NASB]
The royal law of which James spoke is what Jesus taught as the two greatest commandments in Matthew 22:37-40. When James spoke of fulfilling the royal law, he used the Greek word teleo and meant performing and completing the laws. These laws came to the Israelites from God in Leviticus 19:18. When God’s child(ren) breaks one of His laws, the greatest commandment is broken – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. If a person loves God, he or she would obey God’s laws. James taught fulfilling this royal law of loving your neighbor as yourself leads to living an impartial life.

Yet James knew people in the Jerusalem church and in life broke this law of God. For personal motives/reasonings, people choose to show favoritism to some people, often the rich who have wealth, power, and influence, and discriminate against the poor who have little wealth, power, and influence. The thought is a poor person cannot give anything, so no gain accrues by showing favor to a poor person. When we walk by or place them in a lower position in our lives to give preference to the wealthy person, discrimination occurs. That shows to the rich and influential person we consider the poor person inconsequential in hopes of gaining the rich person’s favor.

James bluntly told the Jerusalem Christians they committed sin and were sinners if they showed partiality. By committing just one sin, God convicts a person as a transgressor or lawbreaker of His laws. Just sinning in one part of God’s Law makes a person a sinner like the rich people who oppress people, drag them to court, and blaspheme God. By stumbling in one point of the Law, a person is guilty of every point. When a person sins in any point of the Law, that person sins against the royal law – against God and humankind. When a person sins against another person, he or she shows a lack of love towards the person (neighbor) and a lack of love toward God. Jesus taught this in Matthew 5:19, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments and teachers other to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Peter encouraged Christians to practice the things Jesus taught and modeled to them about living God and their neighbors. In 2 Peter 1:10 Peter said, “Therefore brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble.”

James taught living one’s faith out in the world by words and actions showed who was a believer who took his or her faith deeper. That person’s heart changed when he or she assented to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. With the heart change, actions and words changed and the world could see the evidence of his or her faith. James called this true faith.

The Teaching – Reprise

As told in the first section of this study, verses twelve and thirteen are the positive statement of the lesson in this part of James. In verse 1, James used the words “do not,” an exhortation against doing something. In verse 12, he said, “so speak and so act,” a command or exhortation to do or say something. The exhortation to do in this section is more than treat the rich and poor alike. James told them, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” The difference between doing or not doing rests in the prepositional phrase, “by the law of liberty.” James used this phrase in James 1:25, too. It comes from the Greek word eleutheria. This word means the liberty to do or omit things having no relationship to salvation and freedom from the power of sin and death[ix]. Christians have the liberty of not sinning because the Holy Spirit dwells in them from the point they believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The Holy Spirit empowers a Christian to stand firm, endure temptations, and grow through trials. That makes a person become more complete and perfect, getting closer to the image of Christ. The laws of God and the love of God given through the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ bring truth and freedom. John 8:32 says, “And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Paul said in Romans 8:32, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

If knowing he or she has freedom from temptation and sin through the Holy Spirit is not enough to keep a Christian from sinning, James added more with verse thirteen. He said, “For judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” Remember, James implied, God judges every person on the last day. Would you rather be the receiver of His love and mercy or his judgment? If the first, then show mercy; treat each person as you want to be treated. Love them. If you do not choose to be merciful, God, in His mercy, will judge you. Jesus taught this in Matthew 18:32-35. In this passage, He spoke of the debtor who received mercy and pardon by the king for his debt, but still chose to be merciless to one who owed him money and demanded imprisonment for that debtor. The king heard of this man who had received his mercy yet did not give mercy, called the man to him, judged him, and sent him to prison. Jesus taught the positive side of this lesson, too, in the Beatitudes. In Matthew 5:7, He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Recap

What did this lesson from James mean for the Jerusalem church? He taught Jerusalem Christians to be the poor man mentally – assenting and choosing to be a disciple of Christ and a child of God. This requires a heart action. Next James taught them to be the poor man physically - acting out his faith and not discriminating towards rich people and against poor people. James taught Christians being a true follower of Jesus means mental assent, and loving actions and words as a love response to God because of what He did for them through Christ. By loving others and loving God, they would fulfill the laws of God.

Relevance and Conclusion

After reading any part of the book of James, one must search his or her own heart to discover if his or her heart changed with the mental assent to God and Jesus Christ. With a change of heart, the person’s actions and words would show the love of God toward other people as an act of love to God. We each must examine our own hearts, too. Has our faith in Jesus Christ changed our hearts? Do we believe His Holy Spirit within us can empower us to overcome temptation and endure trials bringing us to maturity and completion in Jesus? Are we acting out our faith in community so other people can see and feel God’s love and mercy? Are we giving testimony by word to the love God gives us and commands we share with every person we meet?

Let me encourage you not to race through this list of questions, but thoroughly examine yourselves with the Light of Truth. Look and see if you have not given any part of your life – heart, mind, soul, and strength - to God for His service. Go before Him asking forgiveness and offering yourself to Him. Will you do this – examine your heart and go before God? None of us is truly rich without the grace and mercy of God who gives to everyone who believers an inheritance in His kingdom through Jesus Christ, His Son. We are all poor.

“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 1:24-25 [NASB]