Read James 2:1-13
When Katie, Michelle and I were discussing this passage, I was assigned the task of finding out what it meant to James’s readers. What we read as a scenario about a rich man and a poor man walking into a church might have meant something entirely different to the original audience.
It is helpful to know that James’s readers were, for the most part, peasants. If you were the eldest son of your family you might have owned a plot of land. All the other siblings would be involved in trade. As the poorest members of society, and as religious outcasts, it would be common for rich people to drag these believers into the secular courts.
So what is James’s sermon on favoritism all about? The two theories that prevail are:
1. This is an illustration about two men walking into a synagogue. Early church Jews hearing this letter from James would have been worshiping in a synagogue. The believers would have catered to the wealthy man because his money would help support their congregation.
2. The passage is a reference to a church court proceeding. Both men are believers; the other church members are to settle their dispute. By seating the wealthy man in the front and making the poor man sit on the floor, the people would have violated Jewish law and, without hearing a word, would have sided with the rich man.
Regardless of how you interpret the illustration, James strongly decries showing favoritism to the wealthy man. He states that favoritism is contrary to the guiding law of Christ’s kingdom, to love your neighbor as yourself (v. 8-9).
While preparing to write this, I’ve been thinking about favoritism and today’s Church. I don’t think we are as likely to make decisions about people based on wealth and poverty as James’s readers were, but we have other categories for people, don’t we? We’re more comfortable with people we perceive as being “just like us.” While I’m not saying friendship and comfort are bad things, I wonder if they ever become an impediment to ministry and if they ever oppose Christ’s command to love our neighbors.
So that we can keep tracking with James and his audience, though, let us consider an instance of outright favoritism. Think of a celebrity whom you really admire. Imagine that person walks into your church on Sunday morning. Through another door comes a family of refugees. It’s time for the greet-your-neighbor part of the service. Whose hand are you going to shake?
I know what I would do. I’d climb over three rows of people to shake hands with Bruce Springsteen. I would promise myself that I’d meet the refugees the next week. And I would go away feeling all right. After all, it’s not like I killed anyone.
James’s readers must have been a lot like me (perhaps all of us?), because after verse 9, he begins to talk about keeping the whole law. If we stumble at one point, for instance by showing preference to the Boss, we are guilty of breaking all of God’s law.
Because we are law-breakers, we are subject to judgment. James tells his readers to let the awareness of this coming judgment shape the way they speak and act. He does not tell them this to scare them into submission, but rather to point them toward freedom.
At the root of favoritism is the question, “What’s in it for me?” If we only see relationships in terms of what they can do for us, we will be mired in the present and judged in the future. On the other hand, if we are really living in Christ’s freedom, there is no need to play favorites. If we are confident in Christ’s acceptance and in His provision, we will be free to reach out to all kinds of people—not just the ones who can give us something in return.
1. I glossed over verses 5-7. Spend a few minutes pondering them, perhaps thinking of some present-day applications of them.
2. What are some categories we use to group people in our “assembly”? How have you seen these labels be detrimental to relationships and ministry?
3. Have you ever been on the wrong end of favoritism—the guy sitting on the ground? Describe the situation.
4. It would be nice to stitch “Mercy triumphs over judgment” on a pillow; doesn’t it sound nice? How would you relate it to the rest of this passage, or to the theme of favoritism in general?