“The Sin of Partiality”
"My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
"If you really fulfill 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 but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment."
Just before the heart of his letter (2:14-26), James blends the dual themes of wisdom and working faith in outlining the sin of partiality (2:1-13). James describes what it means to be “partial” in 2:1: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”
At the outset, he draws the reader’s attention to “our” Lord, a possessive word, meaning Jesus is ours because he has given himself to us and for us and we have accepted him as our, “glorious Lord.” Describing Jesus as “Lord” (or master) would highlight our need to emulate and obey him (Heb. 5:8-9) while describing him as “glorious” would remind us that Jesus defeated death and is reigning as King Most High. How can we “hold” our “faith” in such a “glorious Lord” while treating people with personal favoritism when our “glorious Lord” never did? The question answers itself.
Another theme that James revisits several times in his letter is the disparity between the rich and poor and how, generally speaking, the rich hold the poor in contempt (1:9-11; 5:1-6). Here (2:1-13) James puts forth a hypothetical situation (“if” 2:2) wherein the believer has the perfect opportunity to exercise his wisdom and faith by welcoming each guest with equal honor despite their social status. Not only is it against wisdom to play favorites in the brotherhood but this kind of discrimination is also against God’s law, thereby violating our faith in Jesus.
There are three ways in which James gives his reproof against the sin of partiality.
Favoritism shows a complete disregard for Jesus (2:1-7). James calls those who make such distinctions “judges with evil motives” (2:4). In fact, it was the rich who usually oppressed poor believers (5:1-7), dragging them to court and even blaspheming the name of Jesus (2:6-7). To favor a wealthy man over a poor man for whatever reason not only dishonors “the fair name by which you were called” (2:7) but also dishonors “the poor man” whom God chose to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5). Jesus came to make the poor rich (2 Cor. 8:9), not financially but spiritually, and those who wear the name of Jesus ought to have that same attitude of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the less fortunate (2 Cor. 6:10).
Favoritism shows a complete disregard for the Law (2:8-11). Who said Christians are not under Law? We certainly are! Part of being citizens in a kingdom necessitates that there be a law. Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, is King making the words that issue from his throne a “royal law” (2:8). If we are to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) then we must abide by our King’s “royal law” which is summed up, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a law of love. Loving others unconditionally as God has loved us is a theme repeatedly emphasized by Jesus (Mt. 22:34-40; Jn. 13:34-35) and his disciples after him (Rom. 13:8-10). Partiality is the polar opposite of our King’s command to love. Love must be shown to all without qualification. So people who play favorites in the kingdom violate the very foundation of the law of the kingdom and, in effect, have “become guilty of all” that the Law teaches (2:10).
Favoritism shows a complete disregard for the Judgment (2:12-13). Lastly, James warns his audience to “so speak and so act,” that is, love in word and deed (1 Jn. 3:18), “as those who are judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). Christ's law is a law of freedom as well as love. The law that Christ delivered was unlike the Mosaic Law in that Christ’s law actually liberates people from their sins instead of enslaving them in their sins (Rom. 8:1-2ff). Yet we need to be careful how we use that freedom. Paul warns the Galatians not to “turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” in the very context of loving one another (Gal. 5:13-14). We have been freed from sin to love! (Gal. 5:6) We must live by this law of liberty and love because, in the end, we will be judged by it (2:13; Lk. 6:37-38). Our mercy for one another (2:13), or lack of it, will be returned to us in the judgment (Mt. 5:7; 6:14-15; 25:34-40), which is why God said long ago, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6; Mt. 9:13; 12:7).
Brethren, let us live to honor our “glorious Lord Jesus” (2:1-7), respect his “royal law of love” (2:8-11) and live in view of the eternal judgment (2:12-13). There may be a brother or a sister in the church that, for whatever reason, you don’t necessarily get along with. Remember the command to love him or her still stands and your very salvation is at stake. Time and time again, the Scriptures explicitly point out that God does not give special treatment to one individual over another. Peter once stated, “...God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is welcome to him” (Acts 10:34; cf. Jn. 9:31). “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).