John Denver used to tell a story about a man who was invited to a fancy banquet. He arrived wearing simple clothing, and was told to leave the room and go to the kitchen for a handout. The man left, went home, got dressed up in fancy clothes, and then came back to the banquet.
This time they let him in, and he was seated in a special place. But the guests were rather startled when the food was served because this man began to take his food and drink and pour it on his coat, saying, “Eat, coat. Drink, coat.”
When he was asked what he was doing, he said, “It was obviously my suit that was invited to the banquet and not me. When I came earlier wearing simple homemade clothes, I was kicked out. But when I returned in my suit, I was invited in. So, I can only conclude that it was my suit that was invited to the banquet and not me.”
I love that story because I think it illustrates the problem that exists in our world of judging people by the wrong criteria.
We’re all familiar with the words of Abraham Lincoln who said in his Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal.”
A hundred years later, in 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech and his words stirred this nation when he said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The words of Dr. King and President Lincoln both find their basis in these words from our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
And in the eyes of God, we are equal. But, we also recognize that there are many differences between us. We are not the same, but we are all equal. We don’t all have . . .
The same background.
The same culture.
The same language.
The same IQ.
The same economic conditions.
The same abilities.
The same opportunities.
And so, there are many differences between us. And not only must society struggle with these differences, but those of us in the church must struggle with them as well. But that’s nothing new. The early church struggled with it, too. Because in the church of the first century, there were:
Jews and Gentiles.
Roman citizens and non-citizens,
Rich people and poor people.
Slaves and free.
Male and female.
Young and old.
Vegetarians and meat-eaters.
Sabbath-keepers and non-Sabbath-keepers.
In the church, we are all “one in Christ,” but there are many differences between us. And so, as James talks in his letter about how we need to put our faith into practice, the thing that concerns him is this – how are those of us who are Christians going to treat people who are different from us?
In James 2 beginning with verse 1, he writes, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
“Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:1-9)
James describes for us a typical Sunday morning service where a group of Christians have gathered for worship. And two visitors walk into this assembly. Both of them are apparently strangers to this church, but that’s about all they have in common. James describes one as being rich and the other as being poor, which is very apparent from their appearance.
The rich man is very nicely dressed. He is wearing “fine clothing”. The New Living Translation says he’s wearing “fancy clothes”. He’s wearing what we would refer to as his “Sunday best”. These clothes make it obvious that this is a man of considerable means.
Plus, he’s wearing gold rings. That wouldn’t necessarily cause someone to stand out in our worship today because so many of us have wedding bands or class rings, but not very many people in that day wore gold rings. It was another indicator of great wealth.
Now it’s important for us to notice that James doesn’t criticize this wealthy visitor for being rich. That’s not the problem. The problem is not that he was rich. The problem is the way the church responded to him because was rich. They show favoritism and James says they were guilty of discrimination. You see, discrimination isn’t just a race thing. It can be an economic thing. It can be a social status thing.
James describes the poor man who comes into this assembly. There’s no mention of any rings at all. And there’s certainly no fancy clothing. In fact, his clothing is described as “filthy” or “shabby”. Some translations even use the word “dirty”. There’s nothing attractive at all about this man; he is shabbily dressed and his clothing is offensively dirty, maybe even has a bit of an odor.
And based on nothing other than their appearance, these two men receive very different greetings once they enter the assembly. The church members “pay attention” to the rich man. They welcome him and offer him a seat of honor. But the treatment the poor man receives is as shabby as his clothing. He is told he can either stand over there and not sit at all, or else he can sit on the floor.
Now, you might think that James is merely exaggerating for effect, that surely nobody would be so rude as to suggest that a visitor sit on the floor. But we need to remember the wide disparity between rich and poor that existed in that ancient world and that often exists today and the harsh treatment which is typical in such cultures. But when you get right down to it, what difference is there between asking a visitor to sit on the floor and merely ignoring him so that he doesn’t know where to sit or even if he’s welcome to sit at all?
Experts in church growth have long observed that almost every church thinks they’re friendly. They will ask the question to thousands of churches – Would you describe your church as a friendly church?” And almost 100% of the time, they will get the answer, “Yes, we are very friendly.”
But when visitors are asked if churches are friendly, 80% of the time their answer is “no”. Sueanne and I have visited a lot of churches around the country and I think that that statistic is pretty accurate. I would describe about 80% of the churches we visit as not being friendly at all.
So how is it that every church thinks they’re friendly, but 80% of the visitors say they’re not? And the answer is this — it’s because almost every church tends to be friendly – to each other. We can stand around and chat for hours with the members we like to hang around with, and so we think we’re being friendly, when we haven’t said anything to the visitors who come through the door.
In most churches, it is a very difficult thing for a newcomer to break into the circle and find a genuine welcome. I think that’s a real shame, and I think that churches need to do whatever they can to correct that problem. But what James is describing here goes beyond that level of indifference.
The mistreatment of the poor he describes is nothing short of sinful, and he doesn’t hesitate to call it that in verse 9 – “If you show partiality, you are committing sin.” Partiality, favoritism, discrimination, bigotry, prejudice, whatever word you want to use, James says it’s sin.
And he will not allow us to make excuses like we often do today about the way that we make judgments. We sometimes try to rationalize them, “Well that’s just our culture” or “That’s just how we were raised.” James says, “No, if you show partiality, you are committing sin.”
The word “partiality” appears several times in the New Testament, but this is the only time that it’s not used to refer to God. Every other time this word is used in the New Testament, it’s used about God to make the point that favoritism is absolutely absent in the character of God.
For example, in Acts chapter 10, you have the Cornelius episode. After going to visit the Gentile Cornelius, Peter said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35).
Romans 2:9-11 – “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
Ephesians 6:9 — “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
So, James is absolutely right when he says that partiality is sinful because anything that does not reflect the nature of God is evil. There is no favoritism in God, so anywhere favoritism exists, you know it didn’t come from God, it’s sinful.
James gives us several reasons why he (and God) find this kind of behavior so offensive.
1. Showing partiality is inconsistent with our Christian faith
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” (James 2:1)
The Greek word that’s translated here “partiality” or “favoritism” actually comes from two root words — one meaning “to choose” or “favor”, and the other meaning “face” or “appearance”. So basically, the word means to favor someone based on their appearance.” I like the way you look, so I’m going to treat you better than that person over there because I don’t like the way he looks.
But James says that having faith in Jesus Christ and showing partiality are completely incompatible. If you truly have faith in Christ, you can’t show partiality. And if you show partiality, you don’t really have faith in Jesus.
I like the way the New Living Translation translates this verse, “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?”
If we claim to follow Jesus but we show favoritism, it gives people the wrong idea about Jesus. Jesus’ whole mission was reconciliation. So how can anybody claim to be his disciple and do just the opposite?
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught impartiality. One of the most radical stories he ever told was the story of the Good Samaritan, a man of another race who was the hero of that story. His last words to his apostles were to go to every ethnic group on the face of the earth and make disciples of all men, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
But, more than that, Jesus practiced impartiality. Even his enemies acknowledged that. Some of his enemies came to him in Luke 20 and they said, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality…” (Luke 20:21)
In fact, Jesus demonstrated impartiality to the point that he diedso that he could bring all men to God and to each other. John said in I John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” If we show favoritism, we’re denying what Jesus did on the cross.
In his book, Strength for Each Day, Harry Lentz tells about a church service that was being conducted in India. That night there was a Brahman, a Hindu of the upper caste, who was visiting the service. And all during the service, people were giving their testimonies of how they’d been saved because of Jesus’ love.
And this Hindu stood up at the end and he said, “I, too, have been saved. But I have been saved by the religion of my fathers, not by this Jesus.” The preacher said, “I’m glad that you’ve been saved. After our service is over, maybe you would like to join us because we’re going to go down to a really bad part of town to minister to and feed and clothe the untouchables who live there.”
Well, if you are a Hindu, you believe that you are defiled just by having your shadow touch those people. And so this man stood back up and he said, “I still insist that I have been saved. But I haven’t been saved that far.”
James is asking us a difficult question here — How far have you been saved? How can you say you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ if you say I’ve been saved far enough to reach these kinds of people, I’ve been saved far enough to love these kinds of people, but I haven’t been saved far enough to love those folks?
As Christians, we’re supposed to look at everybody through the eyes of Jesus. No matter who walks through those doors on Sunday morning, we know two things – first of all, if he’s a follower of Jesus Christ, then Christ lives in him. And secondly, if he’s not a follower of Jesus Christ, then Christ died for him. So, either way, no matter who walks through that door, we ought to welcome him or her.
James says that showing partiality is inconsistent with our Christian faith.
2. Partiality involves judging by a false standard
In verse 4, “[If you show partiality]…have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4)
I think God’s Word translation does a good job of capturing the essence of this verse: “Aren’t you discriminating against people and using a corrupt standard to make judgments?” (James 2:4, GW)
You see, whenever we show partiality, it is always on the basis of a corrupt standard, because it’s always on the basis of some external factor such as appearance, social status, the color of the skin, etc.
Remember when God sent Samuel to find a king to anoint to replace King Saul? Samuel went to Jesse’s house, and he looked at Jesse’s oldest son, at how tall and muscular he was. And Samuel concluded on the basis of his looks that “surely the Lord’s anointed [was] before him” (1 Sam 16.6).
But God let Samuel know rather quickly that he should not judge by outward appearance. God said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7).
The problem is, when we first meet someone, we can’t see their heart, and so we can’t make a judgment about them based on their heart, which is probably one reason why we so often base our opinion of others on outward appearance. But the danger is that whenever we make judgments like that, not only is that the wrong standard, but we are very much tempted to make judgments with some evil motives.
The New American Standard Bible translates verse 4, “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” James says that when we discriminate based on how rich or how poor someone is when they walk through the door, it is probably because we’ve got some evil motives.
Think about it. Why would we favor a rich man over a poor man? And I think the answer is obvious. It’s because he’s got money! And we tend to favor people with money because we think they can help us.
I’ve actually heard some Christians say, “Why would we concentrate on trying to convert people who are poor? That’s not going to help us one bit because they won’t be able to contribute very much. We need to focus on people who have more money because they can give more. That’s what’s going to help the church.”
Listen to me on me on this — When we accept one person and reject another simply because one person looks like he or she might be of value to us or might able to enhance us in some way whereas the other can’t, thinking like that is both selfish and evil.
“Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”
3. Partiality is unacceptable because it’s contrary to how God sees the poor
Verse 5, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? ?” (James 2:5)
The Bible says that God has a special place in his heart for people who are poor. Proverbs 14:31, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” The Law of Moses taught repeatedly that the Israelites were never to take advantage of the poor but to render help whenever needed (Deut. 23.19-20, Exod. 22.25-27, Lev. 25.35-38).
When Jesus attended the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, he proclaimed his Messiahship by quoting the words of Isaiah that He had been “anointed… to proclaim good news to the poor.. .to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
But there’s another sense in which God has “chosen the poor.” Think of all the times in Scripture when God has worked through the poor and the powerless in order to bring about his kingdom. To give just one example, the couple God chose to be the earthly parents of Jesus were not from the ruling class or the wealthy class of Palestine, but rather were low-income peasants.
Jesus himself was placed in a feeding trough for animals as his first bed, and his life was immediately in danger from the rich and powerful Jewish king. James says that God loves the poor, and if we don’t, we’re not being like God.
4. Partiality doesn’t make sense because of how the rich treat you
“Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?” (James 2:6-7)
Remember that these Christians had been forced out of their homes in Jerusalem. They had been mistreated. James says, “Take a look at who it is that’s oppressing you and dragging you into court and blaspheming the name of Christ. It’s people who are rich. So, it doesn’t make any sense for you to give special attention to those people who are mistreating you.”
Now it’s obvious that James is generalizing with his statements about rich and poor. Obviously, not all rich people oppress the church, and it would be naive for us to think that all poor people are righteous. But the experience of his readers was that they had suffered abuse at the hands of the rich, so why would they cater to them?
And again, far too often, we as Christians pay special attention to rich people who visit our assemblies or express interest in membership because we assume that these people, with their enhanced financial assets, can be of special benefit to the church. And they can be, if they choose to do so.
However, many times I’ve noticed that it’s the rich in the church who are the ones who tend to cause the biggest problems because they expect everyone else to cater to their desires. After all, that’s what they’re used to in other areas of their life. And so, they’ll say, “If you don’t do things the way I want you to do them, I’ll stop giving my contribution to the church.” And the richer a Christian is, the more tempted he is to try to use his money as leverage to get things done his way.
Now, of course, the solution is not to ignore the rich. Rather, the solution is to treat everyone with equal dignity and respect.
So, what’s the connection?
The book of James is not just a hodgepodge of sayings, but rather this book follows a consistent theme and all of its various sections somehow connect together if we’ll look for those connections. So, what is the link between this passage and the end of chapter 1?
In James 1:27, James said not only to take care of orphans and widows (who were the poorest of people in ancient times) but also to “keep oneself unstained from the world.” And then James starts his sermon against showing partiality, because showing partiality is a clear indication that a Christian’s thinking has become polluted by the world.
When we show preference to the rich over the poor, we are giving ourselves over to this world’s value system. Because this world is convinced that the only people who matter are those who are rich (or at least middle-class), those who have some degree of power, and those who are physically attractive (even if only because of their expensive clothing and fine jewelry).
Now James is not condemning all aspects of our culture. But when our cultural values are ungodly, God expects his people to recognize that and not be corrupted by them, but rather to expose them for what they are. And a church that shows partiality toward those who come into its assembly has bought into the thinking of this world.
Too many of our cultural values concern status symbols, money, and celebrity. And the point of this passage is that showing partiality is simply one symptom of a larger problem of how Christians can buy into the world’s value system without even realizing it. We have got to be willing to be different from the world.
In the ancient world, the church was pretty much the only place in society where distinctions of race and gender and class didn’t matter. And we need to be the place where that is true in today’s society as well.
Years ago, during World War I, behind the lines they built what they called “rest houses” which were designed to serve as places of fellowship for soldiers – whether officers or enlisted men. Over the entrance of these houses were posted these words — “Abandon all rank, ye who enter here.” That sign let soldiers know — in this house, I don’t care if you’re a general or a private, we’re all warriors, we’re all on common ground, and everyone is welcome.
I think that sign ought to be above the door of every church building. “Abandon all rank, ye who enter here.” Because it doesn’t matter who you are – rich or poor, black or white, general or private, CEO or McDonald’s employee. You are welcome here. If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, we know that Christ lives in you. And if you’re not a follower of Jesus Christ, we know that Christ died for you.