The problem James speaks of in this passage is subtle, but quite harmful to the Christian community. Behind this offense is a lack of love, when love should be a prominent characteristic of the Christian church. We know from the Book of Acts the early church in Jerusalem looked out for its own. They had a common benevolence fund and sacrificed together to help those who were destitute. It was to this very church that James preached these words. Even here, there was a temptation to show partiality to the wealthy. Why should we not show favoritism and partiality?
I. Partiality is insensitive (
James describes a situation that could well happen in the first century. A rich man, dressed in his finery, comes into the service and is shown great honor. He is given a nice seat in a nice spot. A poor man, dressed shabbily, comes in, also. He is allowed to enter but is given a place on the floor. How would the poor person feel? Is it not the height of insensitivity? James, growing up in a poor family, was probably quite familiar with how the poor felt.
II. Partiality is senseless (
One of the reasons favoritism is senseless is because God often has chosen those who are of humble means to be the teachers of the rest. It is at first glance an understandable temptation to favor those with means because they have the economic capacity to help the church fulfill its mission. However, those with little means have something to give, too. While they may not be rich in gold, they are rich in the things of God.
Reading these words of James reminds us of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man was rich in this world and poor in the next. Lazarus was poor in this world and rich in the next. It also should remind us of Jesus Himself, who though from a family of meager resources, was profoundly influential intellectually and spiritually.
In Canmore, Alberta, Canada, there is a church that bears the name of a missionary who came to the region to work among the Cree Nation. After six years, he had to leave due to ill health. The Cree people said of him, “Poor he came among us and poor he went away—leaving us rich.”
James also points out the irony of the church showing favoritism to the rich when the rich have done very little to help the poor. In some cases, they have harassed the poor; yet they receive honor.
III. Partiality is sinful (
The most devastating thing James says is that favoritism is a sin. At the heart of the law, Jesus said, was to “love your neighbor as yourself.” James calls this “The royal law.” It might not seem to be a sin to show partiality, but it is. We might flatter ourselves that we have not committed the big sins such as adultery and murder, but James points out those who show partiality are sinners nonetheless. If we break only one law, we are still lawbreakers.
There are those who try to preach that if you are a truly good Christian, you will be rich. Others try to suggest that if you are a truly good Christian you will be poor. Shouldn’t we long for the day when the amount of money in a person’s pocket does not matter at all?
James’ message comes to a sharp point in verses