1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Now St. James devotes a lengthy passage to another way that Christians must be “doers of the word:” by not showing partiality to the rich, but rather by treating all people with equal respect and dignity.
Before I get to St. James’ overall theme, let me point out something interesting: The Greek word here translated “assemblies” is synagoge, from which the English word synagogue comes. The word literally means “together people” or, more smoothly, “gathering of people.” Normally this word does refer to an actual synagogue, that is, a building where Jewish people met to read and discuss the Torah and to pray, or a group of people that meet in such a building. Here, however, it refers to a Christian assembly, which would include prayers, Scripture readings, hymns, and a celebration of the Eucharist. St. James certainly does not use the word to refer to a building, since in the early Church there were no church buildings. Christians worshipped in homes or sometimes in secluded public places. In any case, St. James’ choice of the word synagoge points to the continuity between Judaism and the primitive Church. The earliest Christian assemblies were merely synagogues (in the sense of “gatherings”) of Jews who believed that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus.
In at least some of these “synagogues,” as St. James implies in verses 2 and 3, the rich and powerful were given preferential treatment, while the very poor were treated with disrespect. This must have been a fairly common problem in the very early Church (and sadly, history shows that it would continue to be throughout Christian history) for James to have devoted so much space to discussing it.
St. James strongly warns them that this should not be so. FF expands upon his words, writing “Such partiality to the glorious ones of this world is inconsistent with their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ., the One who is truly glorious, for when the Lord of glory came along us, He has nowhere to lay His head during His ministry and voluntarily washed the feet of His disciples…He thereby revealed that the true glory is that of the humble spirit, not that of outward ostentation” (29). When we give preference to the rich, the powerful, the famous, or the beautiful, we are no better than corrupt judges who accept bribes and favor the “mighty ones” of this world in their rulings.
Then the Lord’s brother reminds his readers (and us) that God has “chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” This of course brings to mind Jesus’ statement “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (and not only are the literally poor blessed, but also the “poor in spirit [Matt. 5:3]), and also his praise of the poor widow who gave two mites (Luke 21:1-4) and his parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), as well as other teachings of our Lord. Throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, we see that God has a special concern for the poor, and we should imitate that concern in our lives, not dishonoring the poor.
In verse six and seven, St. James gives another reason why his readers should not favor the rich: because of the latter people’s behavior. Not only did they oppress the early Christians and drag them into courts (this brings to mind the activities of a certain young man named Saul who is mentioned in the book of Acts…), but they also blaspheme the holy name of God, not just by their words but by their behavior. Why should Christians show preference to the very people who persecute them?
After reiterating his point in verses 8 and 9, St. James makes a startling statement in verse 10: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” Wow! There is no doubt but that if you keep the whole law (again, here he doesn’t mean the Mosaic Law, in all likelihood, but rather the teachings of Christ and his Apostles) and stumble in one point, you have still sinned. But guilty of all? What can this mean? I think Fr. Farley explains it very well:
“James is not here proclaiming the necessity of sinlessness for salvation [Fr. James’ note: Good thing!], nor speaking about involuntary sins of weakness. He is speaking about one’s attitude to God, about a man who deliberately repudiates one of God’s commandments to defiantly choose his own way. Thus, if that man does not commit adultery but does murder, he has become a transgressor of the Law, a renegade from God, for he has deliberately turned away from what God has ordered. It is no use for that man to defend himself by pointing out to God that he has not committed adultery or by showing how many of God’s laws he has not broken. For his transgression is personal. The sin is not in breaking some abstract principle, but in rejecting a Person, for the same God who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ said also ‘Do not murder.’ He has rejected God’s authority over his life in committing the murder” (30-31).
In other words, the reason we are guilty for breaking the whole law when we break one point of it is because by rejecting one law, we are rejecting the One who gave the law. And rejecting Christ is much more serious that rejecting one or two rules.
What we need to do, St. James says, is to “speak and do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” – in other words, we need to live our lives as if we might be facing the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ tomorrow. And we need to be merciful…otherwise we will be shown no mercy at the Judgment (remember how Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”).
Finally, St. James closes this section with a beautiful statement: Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Listen to what FF has to say about this (I love it!): “In saying this, James uses a vivid image, picturing mercy and condemnatory judgment as two adversaries. Which will prove the stonger? If we follow Christ’s Law of freedom and show mercy to the poor, then mercy will triumph on the Last Day. The verb rendered boast-off [“triumph” in the NKJV] Is the Greek katakauxaomai, an intensive of the verb with kauxomai, to boast. It is used in Romans 11:18 and means “to exult,” “to crow.” The image here is of mercy exultantly shouting in triumph over a defeated judgment, to our eternal salvation. Yet mercy will only triumph on the Day if we refuse to show partiality, and strive to love all men as Christ commanded” (31).