No Partiality

March 3, 2024 Speaker: Jad K. Series: James

Scripture: James 2:1–13

You’re at the airport, waiting to board a plane; you can see the small separator between priority and regular lanes; there’s a 3x6 carpet on the priority side that has not been washed since the first moon landing. Boarding time comes, and you hear what sounds like: “We now invite all of our customers who are platinum, gold, myrrh and frankincense to board through the priority lane. From the depth of our heart, thank you for your loyalty. Next, we invite all those who are rich, successful, and well off. We appreciate your business. You may also board through the priority lane. And now all of you who have the honor of breathing the same air as the others, you may board on the other side of the separator, and don’t dare walk on the carpet.”

You get the point: If you’ve traveled by air before, you’ve probably witnessed some partiality; it’s all around us. It can be thinly veiled as customer service or loyalty perks. But after all, it is self-serving. Airlines treat better those who bring them revenue, and people favor those who could elevate them. Could this partiality be present among Christians? James, writing to believers in a context of class system and land ownership, seems to suggest that partiality had made its way through a priority lane to the assembling together. In a letter of short directives and memorable one-liners, he gives half a chapter to this topic, likely a reflection of how prevalent this issue was; or how dangerous it could be; it needed to be addressed to preserve the integrity of faith and witness. James proceeds to address 3 aspects relating to partiality: its doubt (1-4); its absurdity (5-7); its remedy (8-13).

The Doubt of Partiality

Believers who read James’ letter were in different parts of the eastern Mediterranean basin. It was common for those living in that culture to seek self-promotion by honoring the ones who could advance their cause: the rich and the powerful; rulers and landowners; religious leaders; and others. Maybe it was not different for believers to do the same within the church. Picture a gathering of believers within that system, with visitors or new converts entering the assembly and being told where to sit. You could imagine ushers directing the rich, powerful and extraordinary to sit upfront, or to be given fancy seats. After all, maybe they’ll give more money to the church; or the gold ring of power they wore means they could help lift up some of the members. But the poor and ordinary were told to stand in the back, or even to sit on the ground. After all, nothing in their hand they could bring.

James lovingly directs his brothers and sisters in the faith not to show such partiality. It was not a new command. God himself had spoken plenty on this topic in the Law in Lev 19:15, Deut 1:17, and 16:19. Partiality was also condemned by Solomon in Prov 24:23, by Jesus in John 7:24, and by Paul in Rom 2:11. And James does something remarkable in v.1 when he says: show no partiality as you hold the faith. The exact Greek words here, which are hard to put into English, translate something like this:” let it not be that you have the faith [of our Lord Jesus Christ the Lord of glory] in partiality.” He is directly linking our faith in Jesus to the faithfulness of Christ, in that if we show favoritism, we would be denying his faithfulness. We cannot hold faith and partiality together. If we do that, we would be on shaky ground. Faith and favoritism are not compatible.

In fact, down in v.4, James condemns partiality as evil. This is a great place to apply the famous commandment of Jesus from Matt 7:1-2: Judge not, that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. If we judge with partiality, we will be judged severely. The thinking behind such judgment and distinction is foolish, selfish, and evil. It is not compatible with true faith. In another hard to translate verse, the exact Greek words of James are: “Are you not doubting in yourselves, becoming judges with evil thoughts?” It is the same verb [diakrino] he already used for doubt in 1:6. The one who doubts God is unstable, wishy-washy, a rudderless ship swayed by the waves of prevalent opinions, a fragile leaf carried by the winds of change.

When a believer practices favoritism; when a Christian is marked by partiality; when a church exercises discrimination; the seeds of doubt are sown. And such seeds threaten the foundations of the entire structure. If they were to take hold, they would make the whole unit unstable, they would shake our faith, and they would direct our eyes away from the faithfulness of our Lord. Partiality means doubting that Jesus Christ is faithful to build his church from all peoples for the glory of God who grants faith to the ones he loves. Doubt and faith are incompatible. Partiality cannot occupy the same realm as the church of Jesus Christ which is to be the pillar of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). This is why James equates it with evil. Doubt does not come from faith. Favoritism does not come from faith. One cannot hold faith and partiality together just as one cannot hold evil and righteousness in the same hand. And so the commandment to let go of partiality is also a call to believe Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, and to pursue his righteousness.

The Absurdity of Partiality

In the next 3 verses, James elaborates on the absurdity of practicing partiality. Believers were trying to flatter and elevate some of the same people who abuse them! They lived in a society where the powerful and well off could easily manipulate the systems of justice and economy to favor themselves. Jewish believers can look back at their own history and see how their grandfathers suffered as they looked at outward appearances. Remember Saul? He was taller than anyone else and very handsome. So they made him king, to their own detriment. He would enlist the men in his army and use power to his own ends. Even Samuel looked at the handsome and stately sons of Jesse. But God looked at the heart of David and saw in him one who would shepherd his people and take up their cause. Still, at the time of James, people would seek the favor of landowners who would in turn drag those poor people into court to strip them of their land. Rulers and religious leaders would even mock the name of Jesus, persecute his followers, disdain the Lord’s Supper, and make fun of Christian worship.

How absurd it is to seek to elevate such people in the assembly together. In many parts of the world, when the wealthy and powerful visit a church, they are given seats up front, padded with crimson cushions and elaborate decoration. They are exalted and given places of honor. Many of them are unbelievers; some of them even oppose the Christian faith and seek to glorify themselves. This practice was common in the first century, and all too common since, as seen in later Christian Rome, medieval Europe, the time of the Crusades, the kings and queens of Great Britain, and even today in places like Russia. It may not appear the same way here in America. But could partiality be rearing its head in other ways? After all, the search for fame, power and riches has been a universal sin throughout history. Could it be that the church favors those who are famous? Elevates the opinions of those who give the most money? Honor those who have titles? Bend its beliefs to suit those who could possibly benefit us in the city? In the economy? In the courts? In politics? Could we be doing that even when some of the people we favor blaspheme the honorable name by which we were called?

At a more local level, are there ways we could be practicing partiality, which could undermine our witness? We may not have kings and queens, people with gold rings of power, or a lot of poor people with shabby clothes. It might be in subtle ways like snobbery, or even an internalized pride, showing up by staying far from certain people or avoiding interactions with them. Or scoot in our seats away from those who may smell a certain way. Or simply disregard those who look ordinary, unkempt. Or maybe even favor those who do NOT look fancy and who look relaxed just like us. Or it could be in less subtle ways like discrimination based on gender, ability, preferences, appearances, race, or others. Or maybe I am seeking for people to be partial toward me? All such things threaten unity, dishonor God, insult his image-bearers, sow doubt in faith, and undermine the faithfulness of Jesus. This same Jesus died to give his promise to those who love him.

James here pleads with the believers like a father who loves his children. He is asking them to look through this fog, perceive the absurdity, and see the better way of God. Our God loves the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the fatherless (Deut 10:18). For our sake the Lord of glory became poor so that we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). He chose what is foolish, weak, low, and despised in the world – what the world considers as nothing, the things that are not – in order to shame the wise, the strong, and the things that are (1 Cor 1:27-29). Now that is absurdly glorious! How can it be that the God of all wealth, wisdom, power, and authority became poor for our sake? And in that, he was pleased to give the kingdom to those whom he so loved that he gave his only begotten son (John 3:16). And the son declared: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3) With Christ we will inherit all things, and he will preserve us to that day when our faith becomes our sight and our hope becomes our reality. This is his promise to his beloved – to those who love him. Does it not increase our hope? Does it not enrich our faith? This logic is the complete opposite of favoritism and partiality, and shows how absurd they are! But it embodies the perfect wisdom of our God where we can delight and find rest.

The Remedy of Partiality

Partiality is inconsistent with true faith because of whom we believe in. Partiality is absurd because of the wisdom and promises of our God. And partiality can be remedied by right understanding of love and practice of mercy. In the same Leviticus passage where God outlaws partiality (19:15-16), he also announces the law of the kingdom of heaven (19:18): you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Partiality is not love, because it is self-serving; it only seeks self-promotion; it is not true love of neighbor; it is love of oneself. The partial person hopes he/she can receive something in return for flattery, for exaltation, for giving an honored seat, for fawning on the rich and powerful. But the Law calls this a transgression. The listeners to James’ sermon, from an immediate Jewish background and still living in a majority Jewish context, understood this warning: fail in one and you fail the entire Law. Maybe partiality was considered a lesser sin in some of their minds. So James argues from the greater to the lesser [argumentum a maiori ad minus]: murder has bigger consequences in this life than adultery. If a killer says: “oh well at least I did not commit adultery,” this does not exonerate him from either, nor does it make either sin less egregious. In the same manner, one cannot say: “I showed some partiality but at least I did not murder…” James is elevating the insult of partiality to a sin against the entire Law. Partiality’s consequences in this life do not change the eternal weight of dishonoring God and falling short of his glory. In this life, one goes to jail for murder but may not go to jail for adultery. But neither one, nor the partial, may inherit the kingdom of heaven if they do not repent and receive mercy. For the power of these words rests not only in a written text, but in the person of the triune God who declared them, who in Christ Jesus fulfills the Law not by eliminating it, but by reflecting the will of the One Lawgiver in the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

How freeing is this news! The royal law of love of God and neighbor is the law of liberty to which we have been saved. It is the law of the kingdom he gives to those who love him. It is the freedom we now have in Jesus which reflects the will of God. In Christ, we have received mercy and grace and acceptance. We did not receive them in order to reject the Law. We have rather been given a new vantage point to love the commands of God through the eyes of Jesus. Because they have been infused with the interpretation of the Lord of glory who himself imposed this law on us: by calling us to love God and neighbor he is freeing us from partiality to show mercy, honor, love, and grace. It is not enough to know about this law, or accept it, or hear it. 1:25 says it is the doers of the law of liberty who will be blessed. Hearing without doing is not enough; faith without works is dead.

After all, we will give an account for every one of our words and deeds. Our faith will be measured and known by our fruit, and the heavenly rewards will be proportionate to our work in the kingdom. The mercy we have received frees us from our bondage to sin; it brings us out of slavery in Egypt; but it does not leave us in the wilderness; it ushers us into a new kingdom, a new land, a new family where we have rules to obey and ways to practice that reflect the will of the Savior and benefit all citizens of the city of God. Have we been saved? Have we tasted the goodness of the Lord? Have we received mercy from God? Our answer must be a resounding: YES! And our practice must show by our own mercy toward others that we truly understand the weight of God’s mercy toward us, as we demonstrate a growing desire to obey the laws of the kingdom of heaven. Our works reveal our hearts and the depth of our understanding of God’s love for us and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Should we not show mercy, the consequences will be eternal. All of us believers realize that we deserve God’s judgment; our worth is not in our own selves; there is nothing we can do to be saved; nothing in our hands we bring, simply to the cross we cling; but once we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, there will be no condemnation. That is a relief because we know we still cannot keep the law of God perfectly. Our acts of mercy will reflect our understanding of his grace and will show that our heart has been made right by the blood of Christ and that we have been united to him by faith. And his mercy will triumph once more on the final day as we stand before him and receive the promised eternal life.

***

If we show partiality in either direction, be it to the rich or to the poor, we are not exercising the reality that both need the grace and mercy of the Lord for their salvation. Neither fawning on the rich, nor simply covering the physical needs of the poor are enough. Neither is merciful. Both must know they need Jesus. If we are partial toward the rich and contribute to their pride, how will they know their sinfulness and realize their need for the mercy of God? Partiality, once more, would be an insult to the grace of God, would sow disunity in the body of Christ, and is worthy of judgment. And judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.

These are strong words from the brother of Jesus. He knew a thing or two about lack of mercy. He saw his own brother wrongfully accused, mercilessly tortured, and brutally murdered. He himself had not believed him. But he witnessed him show mercy to the poor, the downtrodden, the blind, the lame, the weary, the sinner. He saw him love God with all his being. He attested to his love of neighbor. Once he himself accepted the grace of salvation, he understood that receiving mercy and believing are not just feelings; they translate into actions: real faith opposes discrimination and actively seeks to show mercy and love to others. Our Lord has asked us to love him enough to care for those he cares for, for those he died to save, for those to whom he was pleased to give the kingdom (Luke 12:32), for those he has chosen to become rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, whether they look ordinary or extraordinary.

Remember the scene of final judgment from Matthew 25:31-46? Oh that we would hear words of commendation for having given mercy to one of the least of these, having obeyed the law of liberty. We want to be doers, not just hearers. These are some of the ways believers honor the name by which we were called, hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, fulfill the royal law, and receive mercy and honor on the coming day of the Lord of glory.

More in James

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