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James 2:1-17 Biblical Commentary
In chapter one, James dealt with the issue of temptation, saying that “the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:3) and that the person who endures temptation “will receive the crown of life” (1:12). However, he denied that temptation ever comes from God (1:13) and affirmed that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
He counseled being “swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (1:19)––counsel that, if universally adopted, would solve many of the world’s problems.
He introduced the subject of doing versus merely hearing the word (1:22)––a subject on which he will elaborate in chapter two.
He also introduced the subject of bridling the tongue (1:26)––a subject on which he will elaborate in chapter 3.
JAMES 2:1-7. DON’T SHOW PARTIALITY
1 My brothers, don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. 2 For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; 3 and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, “Sit here in a good place;” and you tell the poor man, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my footstool;” 4 haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
“My brothers, don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality” (v. 1). A better translation would be “My brothers, don’t show favoritism as you hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
When James says “the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” is he speaking of the faith that Jesus possessed––or the faith that believers have in Jesus. Probably the latter, but we can’t determine that with certainty.
“For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, ‘Sit here in a good place;’ and you tell the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit by my footstool;'” (vv. 2-3). We are tempted to show partiality to wealthy or powerful people, sometimes out of respect, sometimes out of fear, and sometimes in the hope that the wealthy or powerful person will donate money or help us in some other way.
But subservience isn’t the only special treatment reserved for the wealthy and powerful. Angry people sometimes go to great lengths to show disdain for high status people.
From the standpoint of the Christian faith, both of those approaches are in error, because both respond to the wealth or power rather than to the person.
God shows no partiality, but “without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work” (1 Peter 1:17; see also Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 2:6).
The Torah (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 10:17; 16:19), the Psalms (82:2), and the prophets (Isaiah 3:9; Malachi 2:9) forbid showing partiality.
Jesus rebuked powerful scribes and Pharisees, not because they were powerful, but because they used their power for self-serving purposes.
“haven’t you shown partiality (Greek: diakrino) among yourselves” (v. 4a). The word diakrino combines two words, dia and krino.
In this context, diakrino means to make judgments, to categorize people by class, and to respond to them according to their class.
“and become judges (Greek: kritai) with evil thoughts?” (v. 4). Note the similarity between dia krino and kritai. Krino is the verb form for judging, and kitai is the noun for judge.
As noted above on verse 3, the Torah, the Psalms, and the prophets forbid showing partiality. The person who divides people into classes and tailors his/her response to those person according to their class is guilty of violating Jewish law forbidding judges to show partiality (Leviticus 19:15).
What does James mean by “evil thoughts”? There are many possibilities. A person who shows partiality to the rich might be guilty of coveting the rich person’s money––and wanting to find a way to get some of it. Or he might be guilty of hating the rich person and condemning him without cause.
JAMES 2:5-7. POOR IN THIS WORLD––RICH IN FAITH
5 Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn’t God choose those who are poor in 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. Don’t the rich oppress you, and personally drag you before the courts? 7 Don’t they blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called?
“Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn’t God choose (Greek: eklego) those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him?” (v. 5). The word eklego means to select or choose, but not necessarily exclusively. The fact that God blesses the poor with faith doesn’t necessarily exclude the rich from receiving the same blessing.
We have, in fact, known wealthy people who were devout and humble servants of the Lord. But faith does seem to be more prevalent among the poor than among the rich. Once people become rich, they are more inclined to think of themselves too highly––and God not at all.
But you have dishonored the poor man” (v. 6a). If God has honored the poor person, how can we feel justified in treating the poor man badly.
“Don’t the rich oppress you, and personally drag you before the courts?” (v. 6b). It is ironic that we show deference to people who use their power to mistreat us. The rich sometimes drag the poor into court––an arena where the poor are at a distinct disadvantage.
“Don’t they blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called?” (v. 7). I have always thought of blasphemy as verbal abuse directed at God, but was surprised to find that it also applies to verbal abuse directed at people. Slander would be a good translation (instead of blaspheme), because slander conveys the elements of evil intent and untrue charges.
JAMES 2:8-13. FULFILL THE LAW––LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
8 However, if you 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, being convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom. 13 For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
“However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well” (v. 8). The phrase, “the royal law,” might be better translated, “the king’s law.” In this case, the king is God.
Jesus taught that the whole of he law and prophets could be summarized in two commandments: Love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:37:40). James narrows the list to one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
James says that the person who loves his/her neighbor does well. That is true in three ways: First, he keeps the law. Second, he makes life better for his neighbor. Third, he makes life better for himself––even into eternity.
“But if you show partiality, you commit sin” (v. 9a). The connection between this and the last verse is this. The person who loves his/her neighbor will treat the neighbor well regardless of wealth or social position.
Showing partiality means treating the rich or powerful well and the poor less well, which violates the “love your neighbor” rule. Since “love your neighbor” occupies such a high position in the hierarchy of spiritual rules, the person who shows partiality is guilty of violating one of the most important rules. He/she commits a sin.
“being convicted by the law as transgressors” (v. 9b). We tend to think hierarchically about guilt and innocence, ranking murder as the worst and “white lies” as the least.
But James would have us think of two categories: Guilt and innocence––transgressors and those who are holy. Showing partiality moves us from innocence to guilt––from holiness to transgression.
“For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (v. 10-11). James continues to explore guilt and innocence. Whether we are guilty of murder, adultery, showing partiality, or any other sin, we “have become a transgressor of the law.”
Who then is innocent? No one. Who is guilty? All of us. Paul says, “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). How then can we have any hope? Paul says that the remedy for our sin is “being justified by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
But James doesn’t mention grace here. He emphasizes avoiding transgression.
“So speak, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom” (v. 12). James emphasizes actions, speaking and doing––consistent with the emphasis on works that he will mention next (vv. 14-18).
While Christ freed us from Jewish law, he has not freed us from judgment. In Matthew 25:31-46, he created a picture of Judgment Day that says that our inheritance of the Godly kingdom will depend on whether we fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison.
So as we speak and act, we need to keep that vision of Judgment Day before us so that it might motivate us to speak and act with compassion.
“For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (v. 13). This accords with Jesus’ comment, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors”–– and then went on to warn, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).
Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for tithing even their garden vegetables (mint, dill, and cumin), but leaving “undone the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23)––elevating mercy to a place among the big-three.
What is mercy? Peter Davids defines mercy as, “the application of grace.” I like that. Mercy is the conduit that conveys grace to the needy person. This idea of active mercy is wholly consistent with what James says next (see the comments on verses 14-18 below).
JAMES 2:14-18. FAITH AND WORKS
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? 15 And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled;” and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. 18 Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James is concerned here with what we might call lip-service faith––faith that finds expression in words but not in deeds.
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him?” (v. 14). This question has provoked a good deal of controversy. Luther was uncomfortable with the book of James, which seemed to be at odds with Paul’s theology of salvation by faith rather than works. Paul emphasizes that we have been saved by faith (Romans 3:27-28; 4:1-5; 11:6; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 10).
But James says that genuine faith will result in works, and any faith that produces no good works is not true faith (James 2:14-18).
I believe that Paul would agree. While he emphasizes that we cannot win salvation by our good works, he also acknowledges “that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor extortioners, will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). He enjoins us to live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, and says that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:16-26).
“And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled;’ and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?” (vv. 15-16). While we must acknowledge the value of a kind word or a pat on the back, those are of little value to a person who is cold, naked, and hungry. Words by themselves cannot satisfy the needs of a person who lacks food, clothing, and shelter.
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself” (v. 17). James is not trying to downplay the role of faith. In the next verse, he will speak of his own faith. His point is that true faith will manifest itself in action––will make a difference in the way that we live. Faith that fails to do that “is dead”––lifeless––useless.
“Yes, a man will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works'” (v. 18a). While this verse is not in the lectionary reading, it rounds out the argument that James has been making and is worthy of inclusion.
There are various possibilities here, but the most likely is that this person is saying that people have differing gifts. One might have faith and another might have works.
“Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (v. 18b). But James replies that faith and works are not two different gifts, each one sufficient unto itself. True faith will always give rise to good works, and works will confirm the validity of a person’s faith. James will continue this vein of thought through verse 26.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan