"Christ himself was poor… and as he was himself, so he informed his disciples, we are all poor…."

—Robert Burton

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby 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? Listen, my dear brothers: 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 insulted 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 slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong? 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 law-breakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a law-breaker. 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! (James 2:1-13).

Two men walk into a gathering: one sporting an Armani shirt and Gucci loafers, the other wearing a shabby, polyester leisure suit. The first, we move over and make room for; the second, we leave standing by the door. "You can’t have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ and show that sort of partiality, can you?" James asks. Or, put another way, you can’t call yourself a Christian and be a snob.

The word James uses, translated "favoritism," here, means "to lift up the face." It has to do with a haughty countenance and a tendency to look down on others, like wealthy dowagers of another age who peered down on us lesser mortals through lorgnettes, a device my mother used to call, "a sneer on a stick."

To favor or disfavor anyone on the basis of birth, breeding, wealth, status, and style is to "judge with evil thoughts," says James. It is wrong–headed reasoning. It is thinking that the wealthy are worthy of honor merely because they are wealthy, or thinking that the poor are less worthy merely because they are poor.

The old aphorism, "As a man thinks in his heart so is he," comes into play here. As a tree springs from a buried seed, so every action springs from a hidden thought. What we think is what we are; our character is formed by our thoughts.

"If a man's mind…

Hath evil thoughts, pain comes on him as comes

The wheel the ox behind.... If one endure

In purity of thought, joy follows him

As his own shadow–sure."

—James Allen


James would agree: when our thoughts are right, righteousness and joy prevail; when our thoughts are wrong, prejudice and pain are strong. "Let us endeavor to think well," said Pascal, "That is the basic principle of morality."

Here’s James’ first thought: "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?"

It’s not that God had to settle for the poor, he chose them—chose them for himself as the verb implies, chose them to inherit the kingdom, to enrich them beyond all measure. He is making them "Saints; gods, things like himself," C. S. Lewis said. If we could see them now as they will someday be (when God is finished with them) we would, as Lewis went on to say, fall on our knees in worship.

One early Church Father wrote, "When our little Father went about on earth, He despised no one, but sought unto the simple folk most of all. He was always among the poor folk. Those disciples of His too, He chose most of them from amongst our brother laborers like unto us—simple folk to make them great."

How can I refuse to accept and associate with one whom God has received? How can I exclude from my home and table, my friendship and love one whom God has called into fellowship with him. How can I dismiss lightly one whom God is making into a glorious god–like being? To do so is to be very much unlike my Lord.

Here’s another thought: "Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?" James asks. Wealthy people in James’ day ground the faces of the poor. These were the same who ridiculed and scorned the "fair name," the name of Jesus by which early Christians were called. Therefore, to prefer the rich and discriminate against the poor is to align oneself with the world and to become worldly in the worst sort of way.

The Old Testament suggests that in an ideal community there would be no poverty, for godly people would take care of the poor. "There should be no poor among you…" Moses assured Israel, "if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today" (Deuteronomy 15:4,5).

Jesus’ lament, "The poor you will always have with you," thus serves as a commentary on our cold, calculating world. Poverty continues because our culture does not care. When we pander to the rich and prosperous and overlook the poor and needy we have joined ourselves to that indifferent, unloving world around us. Once again, worldliness is not what we think. It is indifference, preference, discrimination, prejudice and pride.

Here’s James’ final thought: "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 law-breakers."

James’ argument is not easy to follow, but he seems to be saying that if I love a wealthy man as a pure act of love (without regard to his wealth), I am "doing right." If, however, I love a rich man because he is rich I am "convicted as a law breaker," and am no better than an adulterer or a murderer (vs. 11).

To put it more simply, I may think of myself as a law–abiding citizen because I would never take a life, or step out on my wife. But, to put a fine point on the principle, if I’m prejudiced by age, sex, status, station, ethnic, or educational background my faith–talk, no matter how orthodox, is just so much blarney. I’m a fraud.

Prejudice, whether elitism, sexism or racism, is not a minor fault, or mere peccadillo; it is serious sin. To justify and defend it (rather than repent of it), suggests that I may not be a Christian after all. James minces no words: prejudice is incommensurate with true faith. I can’t be a confirmed bigot and call myself a true believer.

"So," James urges us, "speak (habitually) and act (habitually), as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment."

James calls us to speak and act in mercy because we will be judged by that standard. If we show mercy we will receive it; if we show no mercy none will be shone. Jesus said the same thing: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Matthew 5:7).

These are stern words, but love must be stern at times to be kind. Father Zossima, a character in Dostoyevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, comments, "Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared with love in dreams." Real love wants the best for the beloved even if it means damming to hell the sin that is destroying it. This is James’ love.

Let’s get one thing straight: James is not suggesting that mercy has purchasing power. Showing mercy to others does not obligate God to show mercy to us. Our mercy is only evidential in that it demonstrates that we understand the depth of our misery and the incredible mercy of God in accepting us in that state.

Jesus made the same point in his parable about the steward who was forgiven a debt he could never repay ($10,000,000 in today’s dollars), and who therefore, was expected by his master to extend mercy to a debtor who owe him a very small sum ($1.80). That he failed to do so was an indication that he did not understand the enormity of his own debt and the unthinkable grace his Master had shown in forgiving it (cf. Matthew 18:21–35). Therefore he was, in fact, an unforgiven man.

God has given mercy and that giving teaches us to render mercy to all. The proof and sure evidence that we have received God’s mercy and the gift of eternal life is the simple sharing of all the good we have received. Mercy is not the means by which we receive mercy, but the mark of one who has already received it, and whose heart has been enlarged by God’s love. There is no prejudice in that person and thus there is no condemnation.

How do I know I have received grace? Because I am gracious. How do I know I have received mercy? Because I am merciful. Thus, "mercy triumphs over judgment," or, to preserve the meaning of James’ verb: "mercy shouts out loud!" My salvation comes through loud and clear.

Thus James completes the circle and brings us back to his premise: You can’t call yourself a Christian and be a snob. Real Christians are known by their love.

David Roper