Dr. Mark Scott wrote this treatment of the International Sunday School Lesson. Scott teaches preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. He also serves as minister with Park Plaza Christian Church in Joplin. This lesson treatment is published in the February 2021 issue of Christian Standard + The Lookout.
Lesson Aim: Follow God’s law of love by showing mercy to the poor.
Playing favorites might be harmless in elementary school on Valentine’s Day, but it stinks in the church. The first major teaching of the Epistle of James after the long introductory first chapter concerns how mercy triumphs over judgment when dealing with the issue of favoritism (James 2:1, 8). This word originally meant “to regard the face” of someone. This is not a call to be “color-blind.” It is a call not to allow the face of a person to be the basis of acceptance. God shows no partiality (Matthew 22:16; Acts 10:34). He is not prejudiced.
Prejudice and discrimination are hot topics today. There is racial, religious, language, gender, age, and national discrimination, to name just a few. But the primary prejudice in this passage is economic prejudice. When God’s people make judgments about others based on anything other than God’s love, they show themselves to be thinking more like people of the world than people of God.
James had already said some things about the poor (James 1:9-11, 27), but here he tackles economic discrimination head-on. James could not be clearer: “Believers . . . must not show favoritism” (1:1), “but if you show favoritism, you sin” (1:9). First, James imagined a possible scenario (or perhaps a real situation). A rich man came into the church assembly (literally, “synagogue”). His jewelry and clothing showed him to be very wealthy. He was given a preferred seat. In the “shame and honor” culture of the first century, where one sat held huge social implications. The rich man received the best seat in the house. By contrast, the poor man (one who cowered down or was truly needy, not someone who was just lazy) was allowed to stand or sit on the floor. This discrimination was wrong-headed. The judgment here was based in evil thoughts (dialogues).
When preferential treatment is given to the rich and when the poor are dishonored, God’s whole economy is disheveled. James reminded his readers that God often chose the poor of this world to be rich in faith. Not only that, but the poor in this world have a greater appreciation for the ultimate kingdom where all injustices and prejudices are made right. Some early Christians had great financial capacity (Matthew 27:57; Acts 4:36-37; 12:12-14; 1 Timothy 6:17-19). But the irony of honoring the rich could not be more profound since they exploit (to cause hardship or to afflict) the believers, bring charges against them, and do so while blaspheming the noble name of God. This teaching gets more press in James 5:1-6.
It is hard to show prejudice to someone when you are showering them with the mercy of God. The royal law was most likely the same thing as the “perfect law” and the law of liberty (also mentioned in James 1:25); it was also called the law that gives freedom. It probably referred to the love of God expressed in the gospel that takes root in our hearts. James reached back to the Code of Holiness to make his point (Leviticus 19:18). It is always right to love our neighbors. This keeps us from committing the sin of favoritism.
James went to the famous ten words of Moses to illustrate his point about right-hearted mercy. He selected the sixth and seventh commandments (murder and adultery) as examples. Obeying one commandment and yet disobeying another commandment created a dysfunction for the believer. The law convicted wrongdoers as lawbreakers. That is its job (Galatians 3:23-24). James put the sin of prejudice on par with Moses’ Ten Commandments. That is pretty high up the ladder on God’s sin chart. All sin is sin, and all sin will keep us from God. But all sins are not created equal. Some have worse consequences than others, particularly those that dehumanize others.
So Christians are to speak and act with right-hearted mercy. If they do not, then judgment will come home to roost (Romans 2:1-5). If they lead with love, they will experience freedom. If they lead with mercy, they will leave unjustified judgment in the wings.
Humankind never does judgment well—primarily because humans are notoriously prejudiced. But God always does judgment well because he plays no favorites. The phrase, “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” could be extrapolated from the text and applied in many settings. It is evident even in the Old Testament—think of the mercy seat on top of the ark of the covenant, which contains the Law.
The truly needy are the primary group to whom we show mercy. That will put faith into action.