Sermon on James 2:1-13
Text: My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
In the movie “The Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews sang a famous song about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings. These were a few of her favorite things. Why did she prefer raindrops to thorns on roses and whiskers instead of fleas on kittens? It’s for the same reason that you have a favorite food and a favorite getaway and a favorite television show. Our favorite things are those things that bring us the most happiness. There’s nothing wrong with that. To identify those things that add enjoyment to our lives and bring a smile to our faces isn’t the sinful kind of favoritism that God warns about in our text. Even when it come to people, there’s nothing wrong with identifying those whose company we especially enjoy and with who we get along with especially well. All such examples pertain to what and whom we like. The favoritism that is being warned against isn’t about what we like. It’s about what we love.
Liking and loving are two completely different things. Liking is all about what you get. Your favorite food, your favorite getaway, your best friend – they make you happy, relaxed, secure. Again, there’s nothing wrong with liking in and of itself and we don’t all have to like the same things. But loving is different. Loving is not about what you get. It’s about what you give, regardless of what you get in return. When it comes to whom you love, and consequently, to whom you give yourself in service, we read, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” (Verse 1)
To illustrate what he means, James uses the example of two people who walk into church. “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (Verses 2-4) There’s a rich man and a poor man. The members start thinking, ‘Oh, it would be so nice to have a rich man join our church. Think of all the good things he could bring us! But that stinky guy in the shabby clothes, I suppose he could stay, if he would like. There’s a spot in the back. He’s probably going to ask for help, tax our time, and be more of a burden than a blessing.’ That’s the favoritism that God condemns. It’s seeing someone through the lens of what you might get out of them. In this example, neither the rich man nor the poor man were loved. They were both treated as objects. The only difference was that the rich man was considered a more valuable object than the poor man.
What made it even worse was that such rich people were treating the congregation as objects, too. “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (Verses 6-7) However, the congregations didn’t even seem to notice. They continued to trample over the “worthless” poor in their rush to embrace their abusers. They just couldn’t take their eyes off the money. They couldn’t stand to squander an opportunity to get, even though it was getting them nothing good.
This kind of behavior is so normal that we barely notice it anymore. Politicians use their colleagues and constituents like rungs in a ladder, caring little about whom they step on in their rise to power. Business address letters to their valued customers, and we barely realize is what they really value is the money in our pockets. It’s so normal that we might not even notice that it’s the way the whole world works: people have become objects, tools to use only as long as you need them. Everyone is so focused on how they’re going to use other people that they fail to realize that other people are seeing them the same way.
However, we’re missing the specific point of the passage if we only think about politicians and businesses and other people out there, because this warning about favoritism is addressed to a church – to Christians, just like us. The congregation that sees perspective members as tools – whether to increase its income so it can do more or to increase its membership so that it can brag more. The husband and wife who each consider the primary role of the other to make their lives easier. The children who haven’t learned how to hide their motives, who so openly treat their parents and siblings and friends as planets that revolve around them at the center of their own universe. It’s not that different from “out there” at all. It becomes so natural, so normal, that we don’t even realize that we are doing it, much less that it is sinful. Nor do we notice that it’s the source of so much disappointment and sadness. If a congregation wants growth simply for the sake of growth but doesn’t, it gets frustrated that it didn’t get what it wanted from the community. If a bride and groom each make their vows with their eyes only on what they’re going to get out of the marriage, it won’t take long for the tingles to leave the stomach and resentment to settle into the heart. If parents see their children as objects from which they can get happiness and fulfillment and children see their parents as objects from which to get freedom to do whatever they want and rescue them from whatever trouble they might get into for doing it, it’s no wonder they only complain about each other.
What a wonderful world this would be if there was no favoritism, if no one were an opportunity to get and everyone were an opportunity to give! However, that’s not even the primary point of the passage – how favoritism spoils our relationships with others. The primary point is that it spoils our relationship with God. It breaks what is called the “royal law” in our text: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verse 8) Favoritism isn’t about whom you like; it’s about whom you love. If you show favoritism, you’re not loving your neighbor at all – even the one that you favor. You’re making it all about what you can get. You’re showing that your favorite person in the world is you.
Of course, there are worse sins, right? James writes about some sins in verse 11, “For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” Those sins ruin marriages and land people on death row. However, it is not just those sins that break the royal law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Favoritism also breaks this law: “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (Verse 9) Lest we think of one sin as being worse than another, we read, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (Verse 10) We might picture God’s law as a pane of glass. It doesn’t matter where you hit the glass with a hammer. You break one part of it and the whole thing falls to pieces. It isn’t just the murderers and the adulterers who go to hell. It’s also people who show favoritism.
When you understand what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” isn’t it too tall an order, to high for anyone to reach? To always consider yourself everyone’s servant, even when they give nothing but grief in return, especially since you live in a world where it seems they only way to get something is to take it? However, notice to whom the command is given: “Believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” (Verse 1) Why do you suppose that James choose those words? Why do you suppose that he writes them even before he gives them this command? It’s to remind us of whom we are. We may be objects to the world and often to each other, but not to Jesus. That’s why he is so glorious. Jesus never has and he never will see you as an opportunity to get, but always as an opportunity to give. Remember the difference between like and love? God didn’t so like the world that he gave his one and only Son. It wasn’t about what he could get. He so loved the world. It was about what he could give. That’s why he sent his Son, that’s why Jesus came to keep the law for us, even though we’ve taken a hammer to it time and again. That’s why he died for us. That’s why he saved us. That’s why he keeps on forgiving us and promises us heaven instead of hell. It’s not because of what’s in us, but because of what’s in him, namely, love.
Since we are “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” it changes the way we see the world. It is no longer through the lens of what we might get out of people, but the way that Jesus sees them, the way that he sees us, through the lens of love. It changes the way a Christian congregation sees its community: not as numbers or dollar signs, but as opportunities to give a gift that lasts forever. It changes the way that the husband sees his wife and the wife sees her husband: not as the second party of a contract that hasn’t been keeping up their end of the bargain, but as your own flesh that you rejoice to help and forgive and serve, even when they aren’t perfect. It changes the way that parents see their children and children see their parents. As “Believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” no matter where we are, no matter whom we see, we don’t show favoritism. We show what’s inside of us. It’s simply the love that Jesus keeps showing us – there’s nothing more glorious. There’s nothing that brings greater happiness.
I remember walking into a school classroom and seeing a bulletin board that said Joy is Jesus, Others, and You. The point of the message is that this is where we find our real joy in life. The first is in serving Jesus. Out of thanksgiving for all that Jesus has done for me, I want to do those things that are pleasing to him. I find these things in his law. Then, I find my joy in serving others. I don’t see other people as to what I can get from them, but what I can do for them. As we were reminded earlier, this also is serving Jesus, as I follow the “royal law.” Finally, I serve myself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t look out for myself. I need to make sure that my physical and spiritual need are met. However, I don’t look out for myself first. It is true that this is the exact opposite of what the world would have us believe to be joy. Yet, when we look through the lens of what the Bible teaches, we find that this is the way to true joy in life. May God strengthen us in such joyful living.
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