Scripture Reading: James 2:1-17
Is being partial a sin? That’s the question that came to my mind when I read this text from James. We all have to be partial at some point, don’t we? How many of you vote? That’s being partial to one candidate over another. In fact, we are expected to show partiality in an election. Is that bad? How many of you have a favorite sports team in college football or basketball? Is that wrong? Many times in our everyday world we show partiality, and showing favoritism is inevitable in human affairs. So is it a sin?
I think the answer is maybe and sometimes. Some types of partiality are expressions of participating and keeping the social order that I for sure wouldn’t put in the category of sin. We vote for the candidate that we feel will do the best job in living into our political viewpoint. Sometimes that candidate wins, sometimes he or she loses. Now, what that candidate does in office may be a sin, but that’s a different sermon. How about sports teams? Is God on the side of the Ducks or the Beavers? I guess it depends on which side you are rooting for, but my guess is God has an equal love for all animals, whether they quack, slap their tails, or throw the pigskin.
But I think James would want us to know that partiality becomes a sin when it breaks God’s intention for right relationships between people. When favoritism and partiality separate people in ways that elevate one group or make another group into second class citizens, a sin has taken place. And specifically James brings up the example of class distinctions within the Christian community. This scenario is a little more complex than just the initial reading might suggest. You might even go so far as to say James uses a parable to get his point across.
Here are two visitors that have entered the congregation. One has gold rings and is dressed in fine cloths, the other person looks like he has just got done digging ditches. The man with rings is treated with extreme courtesy while the bedraggled visitor is shuffled aside.
James is making his point by using an extreme example: This situation would probably never happen when James wrote this letter. In Roman culture, there was a very small, very wealthy elite, then a small middle class, then everyone else: the poor, those working to get by, those who didn’t have much more than their families and their faith. In our current economic world, you could say these are the 99%. And that’s who made up the communities James was writing to. There might be a few middle class people who are part of the community, but they wouldn’t be dressed the way James describes the first visitor. The poor man in dirty cloth fit the profile of the average member of the community.
But not so the rich man. One commentator even said that since James specifically said this man was wearing gold rings, the hearer would know immediately that this person was part of the Roman elite, the 1%. Christianity was still illegal and persecution was a real possibility. If this guy showed up in the congregation, he wasn’t there to worship: someone was in trouble. Despite the special treatment, the guy with golden rings could still take them to court, get them locked up in prison, or worse have them thrown into the arena. That visitor would be the one dishonoring the name of Christ by using his power to make members of the community into criminals.
James not only uses this parable as an example of the follies of favoritism. First it can get you in trouble, and second it shows disrespect and harm for those who already part of the community. But James then teaches how it goes against what God wants as understood in the biblical principle of love. He explains the significance of the divine law in contrast to the Roman law. First, the writer reminds Christians of the “royal law” of Christ, which sums up the entire Law of Moses by saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Moreover, “acts of favoritism” are not to be dismissed as minor infractions of God’s command—little sins versus big sins. In order to underline the seriousness of showing partiality, James draws on the ancient Jewish doctrine of the complete unity of the law and contends that to violate the law at this one point is to break the whole law. To illustrate this point, James links partiality with the heinous sins of adultery and murder—sins readers would not fail to consider serious. Adulterers will not suppose that they should be excused of adultery because they have not committed murder.
James’ point is that the adulterer stands guilty before the law, as does the murderer—and as the one who discriminates and shows favoritism that causes harm. God who forbids adultery and murder also forbids discrimination. God stands behind every commandment. Thus, all three—the adulterer, the murderer, and the one who commits “acts of favoritism”—are transgressors of the law and are subject to God’s judgment.
So, where does that leave us? Well, James reminds us all that we are accountable to God for our words and our deeds. At the last day, every individual will stand before the judgment seat of God.
What will be determined at that point is not whether we are “saved”; we have already been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. When James asks, “Can faith save you?” I think, I hope, he would answer yes, but for him it depends on what you do with that free gift of faith. What the judgment we will face will reveal is whether or not we have misused the grace that is ours—whether or not we have embodied in our lives the possibilities the gospel offers.
The faith we receive in Christ is not only a freeing and saving faith for us, but also a freeing and saving faith for others. One commentator said that what James is calling for is “a practice of indiscriminate love toward all people.” And that indiscriminate love toward all people will reveal whether we have allowed the grace and power of God to produce a transformation in our lives. Faith is a free gift of God, and that free gift is transformative in how we live and act and deal with one another. Impartiality in all our doings is in no small part a sign of the integrity of our faith.
It has been said that this section of James speaks the strongest words of rebuke about discrimination and favoritism anywhere in the New Testament, maybe even the entire Bible. The fact that James speaks of “acts of favoritism” in the plural might prompt us to ponder all those experiences in which we have made snap judgments about others on the basis of outward appearance—perhaps on the basis of disability, or dress, or race, or class, or gender, or age. From James’ perspective, discrimination of any kind is simply inconsistent with the Christian faith.
I said last week that the book of James is hard, because he makes us face and think about not only the sin of our actions or lack thereof, but he also forces us to deal with the sin of our attitudes, our attitudes of prejudice and discrimination. Often, we excuse the sins of attitude. We typically judge the sins of actions with a harsh judgment, and let the sins of attitude off easy. But it is our attitudes, those attitudes in our hearts and minds, that give birth to our actions. This is why repentance is not only a change of heart, it is also a change of mind and action.
I leave you with a story. Any Dodgers fans here? Now, I don’t believe being partial to a team is sinful, but this story definitely gives us a small glimpse into the world James would want us to live. Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. While breaking baseball’s “color barrier,” he faced jeering crowds in every stadium. While playing one day in his home stadium in Brooklyn, he committed an error. His own fans began to ridicule him in ways they never would the white players. He stood at second base, humiliated, while the fans jeered.
Then shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese, a fellow white player, came over and stood next to him. He put his arm around Jackie Robinson and faced the crowd. The fans that had been jeering Robinson grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm around his shoulder saved his career.
Friends, you have the power to make a choice to reject the negative and harmful practice of showing favoritism. You can be someone who puts an arm around someone else’s shoulder, no matter their story, their background, their income, age, or race, and makes a lasting difference in their lives as they come to know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ through what you do for them.