James reminds the readers that they have been saved from the punishment of the law by God’s grace (through Jesus Christ.) To now “become judges with evil thoughts” is to risk all.

Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

James begins with a general injunction, “show no partiality”, and then illustrates it with what is initially presented as a hypothetical example, “If a man…” However, it soon becomes evident that the situation described is not so hypothetical (vv.6-7). Some (or all?) of these Diaspora church assemblies are judging attendees solely on their outward appearance.

Firstly though, the setting. The word translated “assembly” is the word for synagogue, but it can mean any assembly. That James speaks of “your assembly” points strongly to this being an assembly for Christian worship, which would have been held in the home of a wealthy person, large enough for such an assembly. At a time when Christianity was regarded with suspicion or hostility, those present would have been invited.

The rich man is ostentatiously rich, suggesting he expects to be honoured, and he is. He is ushered to a special seat. The poor man, on the other hand, is not just ignored, he is insulted. As impossible as the idea is, he is told (literally) to “sit under my footstool.” The distinction couldn’t be more marked.

James accuses them of having “become judges with evil thoughts,” all the while proclaiming faith in the risen and glorified Lord Jesus, “the Lord of glory,” who also happens to be the one who will return as judge (2 Tim 4.1; Rev 22.12.) He gives three reasons why their actions are evil.

Firstly, it is clear from both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ life and teaching that God loves the poor no less than the rich. Moreover, because the poor are often downtrodden and treated unjustly, God has a particular concern to defend their cause. The Law is specific at many points concerning how the poor amongst God’s children should be cared for. Jesus likewise showed a particular concern for the poor and marginalised, who in turn proved more ready to believe in him. So for the churches to flatter the rich and dishonour the poor is to offend God (cf. Luke 1.50-53).

Secondly, to honour the rich is – in their context – an irrational act of fawning and flattery. They are the very people oppressing and persecuting Christians.

Thirdly, by despising the poor they are breaking “the royal law”. This probably refers to what Jesus described as the two great commandments, of which “love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19.18; note too Lev 19.15!) was the second. Also, Jewish tradition holds that the Law is one because God is one, so you cannot break part of it without breaking the whole (cf. Galatians 5.3).

James closes by reminding them that they have been saved from the punishment of the law by God’s grace (through Jesus Christ.) To now “become judges with evil thoughts” is to risk all.

Whose company do you seek out after church? Who do you invite home?

Heavenly Father, I praise you that you have regarded my lowly estate and exalted me through your Son; grant that I may seek out the poor and needy, showing them the same love as my Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.

Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand

Photo by Alfred Quartey on Unsplash