“Treat Everyone Equally”
Lesson Text: James 2:1-13
Background Scripture: James 2:1-13
Devotional Reading: Romans 3:8-14
James 2:1-13 (KJV)
1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with respect of persons.
2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say to him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:
4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
5 Harken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
8 If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well:
9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convicted of the law as transgressors.
10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
To emphasize that showing favoritism is incompatible with the Christian life.
To show that we should treat all people respectfully and justly, especially the poor.
To pray for God’s wisdom and strength in treating all people with love, equality and respect, regardless of economic status, race, and social or class standing.
Was there a favorite child in your family? Probably you would rather not answer that question. We realize that when a parent chooses a favorite, children are damaged. Talking about this subject may remind us of some painful experiences.
Some of the world's most famous stories are about the troubles of families with favorites. We think of fairy tales like “Cinderella.” We think of biblical accounts like Jacob and Esau, or of Joseph and his brothers. The stories may have happy endings, but only because the problems were overcome.
There are no favorites in God's family. He is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). But do members of God's family act as if some were God's favorites? Are there some we ignore, exclude, or disrespect by showing favor to others? This may be another question that we would prefer not to answer! James addresses this problem in today's lesson.
Time: A.D. 44
Most of us are used to a culture that has a large middle class. Such was not the case in Bible times. Most people earned a meager living by farming or herding, perhaps supplemented with a trade. Earning enough to live day-to-day was the burden for most people. By contrast, a few people had impressive wealth. They were free of worry about food. They had surplus wealth to be spent on fine houses, lavish clothing, and many servants.
Out of their surplus wealth, many people also bought prestige, influence, and power. They distributed favors, and in return they demanded loyalty, honor, and service. A poor family may turn to a rich person for help in a crisis, and the rich person might well rescue the poverty-stricken family by purchasing the family's farmland. Then the poor could only work as laborers on the land of the rich, not as the independent landowners that they had been. Powerful landowners could impose low wages and difficult working conditions.
The Bible speaks of God's regard for the poor while issuing severe warnings for the rich (Luke 6:20-26). This is in part a commentary on the brutal conditions often imposed on the poor by the rich. But as we look closely at the Bible's teaching on this subject, we realize that it is more complex than God's simply taking one side in economic conflict. With no means of self-improvement and no human advocate, the poor person can turn only to God for help (Psalm 35:10; 72:4). By contrast, wealth gives rich people the illusion that they have no need (Luke 12:16-21). Their lives are their own, they think, with no reason to turn to God.
Obviously, either outlook can be taken up by people in any economic circumstance. The poor can seek a human deliverer, ignoring God. The rich can realize their spiritual poverty and turn to God. Even so, the Bible still warns that wealth is deceptive, making it desperately hard to hear God. The Christians to whom James addressed and wrote, lived in this world and faced these problems.
Discrimination Identified (James 2:1-4)
1. What does the apostle James mean by the term “respect of persons” as relates to practical Christian living? (James 1:1)
Though the term: “respect” may suggest to our ears a positive regard for others, it translates a word that indicates partiality or favoritism: showing attention and honor to some people and not to others.
It is impossible to have proper faith in Christ while engaging in “respect of persons.” Such an outlook cannot exist alongside faith in Jesus, the one who died for all. Here, the apostle James addressed that some believers were guilty of showing favoritism and partiality toward the wealthy among them (2:1). James stated that showing prejudice had to stop. Verse 6 indicates that this discrimination had been an ongoing problem.
James begins his discussion with a direct command that flows from the very nature of the gospel. The Christian’s faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the “Lord of Glory.” The divine Christ possesses glory far beyond that of any human being. Yet the Lord of glory gave himself in death for all humans, great and the small, poor and the rich, male and female.
Our Lord did not look at the outward appearance; He looked at the heart. He was not impressed with riches or social status. The poor widow who gave her mite was greater in His eyes than the rich Pharisee who boastfully gave his large donation. Furthermore, He saw the potential in the lives of sinners.
In the New Testament, the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of many things, but playing favorites was not one of them (Matt. 22:16; Mark, 12:14; Luke 20:21).
Discrimination Illustrated (James 2:2-4)
2. What was the practical application behind James’ sermon illustration? (James 2:2-4)
James offers a hypothetical scenario, one realistic for people of his time. James asks them to imagine two people who visited their Christian “assembly” (v. 2). This term denotes a gathering of God’s people. The first person at the assembly was wealthy, for he was well dressed and wearing a gold ring. In those days, it was a common practice to wear gold rings as a sign of economic success (see Luke 15:22). The second man comes in filthy, old rags and was poor. Ordinary folk have access to water for cleaning their clothes, so this man seems to be especially destitute. Perhaps he has only one set of clothing that he cannot take off for laundering, lest he be naked in the process.
The church notices the rich man immediately, since his attire displays his wealth. The hypothetical congregation gave special attention and a good seat to the rich person. Meanwhile, the impoverished beggar had only two options: either remain standing or be seated in the lowliest spot, namely, out of sight on the floor (James 2:3). Perhaps James knew about such a situation taking place among his readers. In any case, James labeled this behavior as discrimination, and it showed that the judgments being made were guided by evil motives (v. 4). In brief, it was unjust to say that some people (such as the rich) were better than others (such as the poor).
The congregants James described were not impartial judges but biased individuals motivated by an inappropriate desire for human approval or economic gain. The author taught that acceptance and fellowship among Christian should be without regard for anyone’s social or economic status. We must also be careful not to discriminate on the basis of preferred clothing styles, looks, or musical tastes. Quite often, how we relate to a person is determined by our perception of what this person can or cannot do for us. Since God is impartial to any racial, social, or economic class, those who bear the name “Christian” should also be equitable and fair. In all respects, the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
What Do You Think?
What dangers do today's churches face regarding the showing of favoritism?
How do we guard ourselves against these?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Programming disproportionately titled toward a small demographic within the church
Policies regarding use of church facilities
Inconsistent application of church discipline | Other
God’s Blessing on the Poor (James 2:5)
3. What does James mean by God has chosen the poor? (James 2:5)
James now reminds the people of the way that God's welcoming of the poor is depicted in Scripture. God has chosen the poor not by way of preferring one group of people over another, but by the fact that faith grows in a context of need. Only those who realize that they need God will turn to Him, looking to Him to deliver them. The result can be that those who are poor in a material sense are more likely to be the ones who are rich in faith. They are the ones likely to respond to God's offer with a desperate, vigorous yes.
According to James 1:9, the poor Christian should be proud of his or her high position in the Savior. This is because all believers, regardless of their material means, are joint heirs with the Son in His coming kingdom. The believing poor understand that their self-worth is dependent upon their position in Christ, not their place on an economic ladder.
Blasphemy in Favoritism (James 2:6, 7)
4. In what ways did James speak of the rich oppressing the believers? (James 2:6, 7)
In a manner inconsistent with their faith, the people of God have “despised the poor,” treating them with contempt as described in the hypothetical example of verses 2 and 3. On the other hand, the people of God have reason to be wary of the rich. Their access to power means that they can take advantage of ordinary folk. Just as when Jesus was despised by the Jewish leaders (John 8:49).
“Oppress” (James 2:6) refers to the arrogant flaunting of governmental authority over Christians. James has Jewish officials in mind when he says they “draw you before the judgment seats” (the legal system). Acts 9:2, where Saul traveled to Damascus with official letters to arrest Christians, testifies to the authority which Rome handed over to the Jews.
In the early generations of Christianity, the Christian gospel is often ridiculed for worshipping a man who had been crucified by Rome, seemingly a criminal without the means to escape the power of the empire. As the rich align themselves with ordinary human power, they show contempt for the kind of power that is characteristic of Christ. Not only do they despise the poor and oppress Christians, but the rich direct their assaults against the Lord Himself. They blaspheme (or “slander”) His “name.”
What Do You Think?
What are some ways to honor Christ when we are discriminated against?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
At work or school | As a customer in the economy | At church | Other
The Believer and the Law (James 2:8)
5. To what does the “royal law” refer? (James 2:8)
The royal law means: law that is truly royal in its quality. It is royal or kingly in its relation to other laws. Jesus said that this and the first commandment are so fundamental that on them “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). An individual “loves” himself irrespective of financial or social status. We should love others in the same manner. When we practice the law, we do well; it’s beautiful!
Breaking the Law (James 2:9-11)
6. How did James weigh the “whole law” of God? (James 2:9-11)
James set up a clear contrast between treating others the way we would like to be treated and showing favoritism toward somebody for any reason (James 2:9). Doing the first pleases God, while doing the second is sin. Accordingly, failing to observe the royal law-the most liberating, relationship-building command God ever gave-makes one a lawbreaker. If we transgress any part of the law, we are guilty of breaking all of it (v. 10). To better understand this concept, imagine a balloon with all the commands of God written upon it. Next, imagine trying to cut out one of the commands with a razor blade without affecting the others. James used the weighty sins of adultery and murder to explain that selective obedience to the provisions of the law was absurd. The author would scoff at the popular notion that certain iniquities won’t affect our relationship with God because they are less serious than others.
Respecting the Law (James 2:12, 13)
7. What does the “law of liberty” mean, and why is it important to show mercy to others? (James 2:12, 13)
James summarizes the implication of his argument. Acting in accord with God's law is of first importance. Thus, James gives a command: in speech and actions, behave as someone who will be judged by God's law, as one who obeys God's law.
The way we should live is clear: with forgiveness toward others, like the forgiveness God grants us. The person who shows no mercy to others will therefore be denied the mercy that God gives to sinners. Jesus himself taught that the necessary response to God's forgiveness is to be forgiving (Matthew 5:7; 6:14, 15; 18:32-35). If we do not forgive others, have we really received God's forgiveness ourselves?
POINTS TO PONDER
1. Playing favorites goes against the teachings of Jesus (see James 2:1).
2. Because God created all people, everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and fairness (see James 2:2, 3).
3. Playing favorites results from evil thoughts and selfish motives (see James 2:4).
4. James asked several pointed questions to show why all forms of prejudice are morally wrong make no sense (see James 2:5-7).
5. Fulfilling the royal law of honoring our neighbors as ourselves wins others to Christ! (see James 2:8-13).
God's Big Family
The divisions between rich and poor were wide in James's time. It was easy to fawn over the rich and despise the poor. But doing so was contrary to what every part of God's Word teaches.
Today we face similar divisions, still between rich and poor, but also between racial groups, cultures, etc.
The easy path for us is to favor those who are like us, with whom we are most familiar and most comfortable. We may mean no harm in doing so, but there is a grim effect of our seemingly innocent behavior: by favoring those like ourselves, we exclude others. Perhaps without realizing it, we keep them from actively belonging to God's family. We make it hard for them to be the church.
It is hard to see and hard to admit, but loving as God loves means deliberately reaching out to those who are unlike us in various ways. God wants to have a big family, so we need to love all people. To see others as God sees them—as being worthy of salvation—is our constant challenge, and directive (see Matthew 22:35-40).
Heavenly Father of love and mercy, we depend entirely on Your forgiveness to address You in prayer. We ask by Your mercy that You strengthen us to overcome the patterns of this world by which we ignore members of Your family, our brothers and sisters. Teach us to love one another as You have loved us. In the name of Jesus, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
See others through God's eyes.