A good doctor not only diagnoses what’s wrong, but also prescribes the best remedy, and thus affects a cure. Howie Hendricks likens today’s Scripture passage to Dr. James putting his stethoscope to the heart of his fellow first-century Christians. There, he diagnoses spiritual hardening of the arteries—by way of the symptom of partial paralysis in obedience to God. Partial obedience, James hits us with, is disobedience.
The whole message James lays out circles around three strong calls from God: a command, a contrast, and a warning of condemnation. It will be helpful to fix this in your heart and mind if you write each of these three words running down the page for your notes. Near the top of your notes, jot down the word command. Then about a third of the way down the page, write the word contrast. And about another third of the way down, write the word condemnation. Here’s why: verses 1-4 expose Christians breaking God’s command. Verses 5-7 lays out God confronting us with a stark contrast. And verses 8-13 pronounce a warning of God’s condemnation. James starts with…
God’s command: Quit discriminating.
“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?”
If Jacoby Brissett of the Colts walked in right now, how would he be treated? How would we would treat an NFL player coming to visit yChurch? Like the celebrity that he is!
Yet take that same Sunday, and have someone pull into the parking lot driving a rusty old beater car plastered with bumper stickers that stand for everything you oppose. How would they be treated coming into church?
“Believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism,” James begins. For favoritism, James actually puts together a word that scholars have never found outside the New Testament. It literally means face taking, or receiving face. The ancient traditional custom of greeting was to bow one’s face to the ground. If the one being greeted accepted the person, you were then allowed to lift your head.
The idea is treating someone based on appearance. To that, James says, “None of that among us—not among those who follow Jesus Christ, the King who stooped to receive us.”
The historical background here is fascinating. Joseph Hellerman did his doctoral research is on the social history of early Christians. Now catch this. Follow a little bit of history that’s going to shine a blazing light on this passage.
When James was writing—which was near the high point of the Roman Empire—only about two percent of the population had wealth, power, and privilege: just two percent.
At the very top of that two percent were senators. These were the uber-wealthy, the uber-powerful.
The next rung down from senators were equestrians—so named because in the early days they were the ones who had enough money to send horses into battle.
The next rung down the social ladder were called decurions. All three of these groups together—the senators, equestrians, and decurians—totaled just two percent of the population. They were the ones with the money. They were the very few with prestige. They had the power. They held authority.
Everybody else, fully 98 percent of the Empire, was known as the vulgus, from which we get our word vulgar: “common” folk. Everyone understood that life was structured around status. Where you stood was what you were worth. Your title and wealth determined your value.
And not only were titles meant to keep you in your place, clothing was also all about status. Only Roman citizens could wear togas. Today we think of togas as something silly from frat parties, but back then, if you weren’t a citizen of the Roman Empire, you weren’t allowed to wear a toga; it was against the law.
The basic toga was called a toga virilis. We get our word virile from this. Only men were allowed to wear them. If you were a senator, not only could you wear a toga; you could wear a toga with a purple stripe down the side. It was illegal to wear the purple stripe if you weren’t a senator.
If you were an equestrian, you were allowed to wear a gold ring. And so to be an equestrian was sometimes called the honor of the gold ring. If you weren’t an equestrian, no gold ring for you. Not allowed.
If you were an equestrian and you wanted to climb the ladder to become a senator, then you could wear a special toga—called the toga candida. This is where we get our word candidate from. So clothes in those days were all about status. Everyone understood your worth by what you wore.
And there’s more: seating at events was also about status. If you pay enough cash today, you can get courtside seats at an NBA game or VIP tickets to hear the hottest musical artist. Not back then.
When James wrote, people were seated according to social status. If you went to a public event and looked around, you immediately knew your standing in relation to everyone else present, where you stood in the pecking order.
So your title showed your worth.
Your attire displayed your position.
Even where you were sat announced where you stood socially.
Now reread verses 2-4: Remember the equestrians with their gold rings, and special togas? Sounds like the society that James describes. “That,” James says, “may be normal, but for believers in Jesus, it’s evil.” The way the world works must not be the way we in the church do things.
Howie Hendricks gives a positive more recent example. He attended a church breakfast event in our nation’s capital. There were professional military, quite a few people from various government offices, some craftsmen, laborers of various kinds—really quite a mix.
After the meeting was concluded, Hendricks happened to notice a Senator, stacking chairs and picking up napkins that had fallen on the floor. That’s what James is advocating.
Source: Howard Hendricks, “The Problem of Discrimination”
Or I heard of a church that had some folks head to the local laundromat one day. They spent a few hours paying for people’s loads of laundry, no strings attached. It cost about $5 to get a load of laundry done. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for some folks, perhaps especially a lot of folks who have to take their clothes to a laundromat. So somebody asked, “Why are they doing that?” And get this: a guy who was with the group, but was not part of that church, and not from a Christian tradition at all, his answer was, “Well, they’re doing it because they’re church people, and I think their God did something like that, and they’re trying to be like their God.”
How does that strike you? “I think their God did something like that, and they’re trying to be like their God.” That’s what James is talking about: God places where you are—in this church that’s in a community crossroads, at your job, in your neighborhood—he has placed you there to serve—just like our glorious Lord served, regardless of who looked more or less successful. So there’s the command.
Let’s move on to the contrast. In verses 5-7 James shifts to…
God’s contrast: We honor the wrong thing.
When we play favorites, which means we’re ignoring or dismissing the less desirable, we’re honoring the wrong thing. This is a challenging portion of Scripture. James writes…
“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? 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? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”
When this was read in church, when they first receive this letter from James, all you had to do was look around the room—and you knew what James says here is true.
And it’s still true today. Around the world, the church is overwhelmingly made up of people who are poor. The world has handed them the scraps and the lowest of positions; God is giving them the riches that are in Christ, and the highest position possible.
Christ’s Church right now is growing most rapidly in Latin America and in parts of Southeast Asia, with most who are rich in faith being those who financially are poor. It is still the case that, as Jesus said…
“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
If you get to know Christians from other parts of the world, especially those from areas marked by poverty, you often discover a depth of joy and generosity and hospitality that American Christians rarely experience or display. It’s just a fact.
After pointing out the obvious, that looking around them they could see that it is most often the poor monetarily who are rich in faith—that God is blessing them with what matters more—James points out the absurdity of favoring the rich, when those were the ones persecuting and taking advantage of the poor and of Christians. And again, history fills in the color on what James strikes at.
The Roman legal system was designed to reinforce the status quo of who gets the goods and who’s left fighting over the scraps. Here’s a real example: a Roman citizen of high standing named Servilius one day recognized a defendant who was on trial. Even though Servilius wasn’t a participant in the trial, he asked and was allowed to take the witness stand, where he then testified against the defendant’s character based on a personal vendetta he had against the man—something that had nothing to do with the case. Influenced by that testimony that had nothing to do with the case, the man was pronounced guilty. The system was rigged to favor the wealthy, guarding their status and power, rather than protecting the innocent from being legally abused. It wasn’t about justice. It was about keeping the poor in their place.
So to favor the wealthy and ignore the poor is to honor the wrong thing, James insists. John Calvin captured the idea by asking, “Why honor your executioners?”
In preparation for this week, I met with a Christian businessman who has been quite successful. He told how when his first business took off, money took his heart with it. Money took on way too big a place in his heart and mind and energy. He lost sight of exactly what James warns against here.
But then a relative asked for his help in providing work for people in the Southeast Asian nation where he was working as a missionary. The people were poor. They needed jobs. But here’s the curious thing: this businessman noticed that in that nation, the people’s level of joy despite having very little financially was far greater than he had seen among his wealthy peers here. They were financially poor, but rich in faith, and in joy.
So together, they worked to create a business idea—not a handout, but jobs that would pay a living wage and improve their quality of life.
Here’s the key to their story: because of how wealth had pulled him away from Kingdom of God priorities in his recent past, they decided that from the very start of the new business, a sizable percentage of profit would be given away, right off the top. He wanted to make sure he wouldn’t drift again due to money’s pull.
Let me tell you a bit of a plot twist. When their company website was being developed, the developers pushed hard that the amount of money they were committing to giving away would be a great help in attracting business. If you knew this company was doing such an admirable thing, you’d be more likely to give them your business over a competitor. The business owners caught how that little shift of advertising their giving would put money’s pull right back where it had been before. It would become about optics instead of about giving in secret, so that it would be giving from the heart, giving because they love the Lord Jesus, not giving so that they can get more cash.
So today, that business is thriving. Employees here are being well provided for, and employees in that other nation are also experiencing a much better quality of life. That’s honoring the right thing.
We’ve touched on God’s command that as Christians, we must not discriminate. We can’t let the world set the rules for how we welcome or ignore people.
Moving on to verses 8-13, James warns of…
God’s condemnation: Those who show no mercy will be shown no mercy.
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 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.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
If we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would treat everyone, all the time, the way we would want to be treated. Instead, James points out, we cater to the well-off because maybe we can get something from them. And we neglect or ignore the poor because we see them as taking from what we have.
Playing favorites to some while discriminating against others contradicts God’s commandment. James quotes Leviticus 19:18, the command to love your neighbor as yourself, calling it “the royal command” because this is the Bible verse that King Jesus quoted more than any other. You could say this was Jesus’ favorite Bible verse. Loving others like we love ourselves sums up everything God expects in our dealings with other people. This command was also the basis for Jesus telling his most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan—which today would be more like the parable of the good Al Quaida terrorist. That’s how shocking it was to those who first heard it. Jews hated Samaritans, and Samaritans returned the favor. The whole point of that parable was to show, shockingly, what God does expect it should look like for us to obey this commandment, the most important of all the commandments.
So to Christians who are thinking, “Hey, I’m pretty good about other things God cares about, other commandments,” but they love only some of their neighbors—maybe you don’t particularly like immigrants or Middle Easterners, or Muslims. To obey only some of God’s commands is to break the commandments. That’s James’ point. Selective obedience is disobedience.
“Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it,” James warns. What does that mean
Think of the Ten Commandments as a chain comprised of ten links. If you break just one link, the chain is broken. It doesn’t matter that you kept nine intact; it no longer does what a chain is designed to do. It’s the same when we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves. No use bragging about not stealing or honoring the Sabbath. The chain has been broken. Failing to love our neighbors equally is to break the very law or command that Jesus said summarizes God’s intent for all of his commands.
Failing to love the neighbor you least want to love is to defy God’s command. It is to break the very law that Jesus says sums up God’s entire will for how you get along with others.
James speaks again of “the law that gives freedom,” meaning living according to God’s wisdom revealed in Scripture is always ultimately best for us. Speak and act in the light of all that Jesus said and did. Speak and act in the light of all that God’s Word reveals.
Why? Verse 13: “because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.”
Jesus held out the same promise, wording it positively. In Matthew 5:7 he says…
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
James says the same thing, but from the other way around:
“Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.”
Those who don’t show mercy, won’t be shown mercy on judgment day. Why? Because a lack of mercy reveals a heart that has not embraced the message of Jesus. The proof that anyone has been won over by Christ’s mercy is that they extend mercy to others. True Christianity is shown by how we show mercy to those around us. Love, serve, care: that’s how we summarize our strategy here in this community crossroads. What will set us apart and reveal Jesus to those around us—in an era that is marked by partisan rage and discrimination—will be when we together consistently, mercifully love, serve, and care for people around us, regardless of their wealth or nationality or job title or political affiliation or even their faith or lack of any faith. That’s not compromise. It’s mercy. It’s loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s the core of the commandments.
This is the revolution Jesus started, the revolution into which he calls us—the great inversion, of turning things rightside up again, by treating each person as priceless to God, and priceless to us.
Listen to where James ends:
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What if, the next time you instinctively looked down on someone who pulls into the parking lot driving a rusted old beater car, you declare this powerful truth out loud to yourself? “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What if, the next time the latest political controversy is brought up in conversation—whether it’s about a candidate or about policies concerning the poor, whatever—what if, instead of attacking the other side, what if you whispered this verse before you say anything else: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
What if, the next time an opportunity to love, serve, or care for someone comes across your path, instead of rushing past or not caring, you spoke this verse as your first step of action: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
And what if, instead of judging and condemning us for all the ways we haven’t been merciful, what if God chose to love, serve, and care for us, anyway?
He did. That’s what Communion brings us back to: mercy triumphing over judgment. On the cross, Jesus took on himself the judgment that should rightly fall on each of us, for all we’ve done wrong, and each time we’ve chosen not to do right, the times and ways we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves, and have not loved, served, and cared for people regardless of whether we could benefit from doing so. Come and taste mercy triumphing over judgment.