“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 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?” (James 2:1-4) James is cautioning us not to make appearances more important than character, which he discussed in the first chapter. If we show special attention to the wealthy (or celebrities), we must look at our motivation in doing so. Are we being selfish? Are we able to view either the wealthy or the poor as a human being in need of Christian fellowship? If we say that Christ is our Lord, then we must live as He requires, showing no favoritism and loving all people regardless of whether they are rich or poor, famous or not.
When he was a student, the famous Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, considered becoming a Christian. He read the Gospels and was moved by them. It seemed to him that Christianity offered a solution to the caste system that plagued the people of India.
One Sunday, he went to a local church. He had decided to see the pastor and ask for instruction on the way of salvation. But when he entered the church, which consisted of white people, the ushers refused to give him a seat. They told him to go and worship with his own people. He left and never went back “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu” (from “Our Daily Bread,” [Feb., 1979]).
That tragic story illustrates the sin that James writes against in our text. His focus is on the sin of showing favoritism to the rich and despising the poor, but his words apply to all types of prejudice, whether it is based on economic status, race, or anything else. To favor some people and to disregard others based on outward factors is a terrible sin that plagued the early church in James’ day. It has plagued the church in every generation, because it stems from pride, which is endemic to our fallen hearts. Favoritism ignores the glory of the New Testament church, “in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). The makeup of the local church should baffle the world. The world should not be able to explain how people of different races, economic and social levels, and age groups can come together in love and harmony. To divide up the church along such lines obliterates the glory of God and His salvation!
Partiality puts man as judge in the place of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ! By focusing our attention on Jesus Christ in His glory, James addresses the problem of favoritism in two ways. First, he gets us to see how petty our distinctions between the rich and poor (or any other distinctions) really are. When we exalt men on account of their wealth or power or status, we rob glory from Jesus Christ, who sovereignly gives us everything that we are and have (1 Cor. 4:7). Rather than exalting the rich, we should exalt the supreme glory of Christ alone.
We are not to assume that earthly riches are a sign of God’s blessing and approval. God does not promise us earthly rewards or riches; “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
In fact, Christ calls us to be ready to suffer for Him and give up everything in order to hold on to eternal life. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.'” (Matthew 19:28-30)
Second, when James ascribes glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, it probably points to His coming in power and glory to judge the earth (Matt. 26:64). In 2:4, James says that when we make distinctions among people based on outward factors, we set ourselves up as judges with evil motives (or thoughts). We don’t see the hearts of men, as God does (1 Sam. 16:7). To judge a man based on his outward appearance is to usurp the place of Jesus Christ in His glory as judge of all the earth. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) In the previous chapter, James told us “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” By caring for these powerless people, the church and members of the church put God’s Word into practice. When we give with no hope of receiving in return, we show what it means to serve others – and that is giving grace!