My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 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, 3 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,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without kindnes to one who has shown no kindness. But Kindness triumphs over judgment.
Martin Luther, who described this as a “letter of straw” because it questioned his teaching of slavation by faith alone, may also have disliked it because it contained this passage that was awkward to read in the presence of the powerful rich people who had protected him from the Pope.
And even today there will be congregations who are a little uneasy at this frank speech about toadying to the rich. The Greek word for this habit is prosopolepsia which means literally “receiving the face” or judging by appearances.It is told that Confucius, finding that the greeting he had received when wearing his best robes was refused when he turned up as an ordinary traveller, ordered the robes to be brought and placed on the ground, saying “Now you can bow to the robes, for it is them you value.”
The author deliberately mention Jesus as the “Lord of glory” before whom the supposed glory of the rich is as nothing, and for whom the trust of the poor person is a special beauty. Jesus taught that wealth was an idol , while poverty was blessed by God. James recognises the blessedness of poor believers, and the characteristic ruthlessness of the rich, dragging poor debtors to courts and having them reduced to slavery. If they nevertheless purport to be believers in Jesus they are dishonouring his name. Perhaps the “honourable name” is the Greek “christianoi” meaning messiah-people.
James explains that toadying is a sin against the commandment to love our neighbour as oursleves, a sin that makes us law-breakers, because breaking any commandment is sin against the One who gave all commandments. He goes on to remind the reader of Jesus’ blessing on the the kindly, that they will be shown kindness by God. Those who are unkind, he teaches, will face God’s holy judgment.
This vivid, robust denunciation of the honour culture of the Roman Empire is interesting because it is articulated in a religious writing that comes from the underclass. Almost all Graeco-Roman literature known to us comes from the upper classes and their slaves (some of whom were more literate than their owners). The New Testament as a whole comes from an underclass of slaves, labourers, crafsmen and traders, many of them Jewish, who utterly reject the empire’s assumption that “great men” from the most powerful families are naturally better human beings than those further down the ladder. It is a telling fact that the Greek word for toadying to the rich is only found in in this book out of all Greek literature. Here the authentic vocabulary of ordinary people is used in the name of Jesus, himself an independent craftsman.
It is also evidence that the Christian assembly, like the Jewish synagogue before it, was a place where people of all classes were welcome. In fact, the Christian assembly had the advantage of treating women and foreigners as equal in Christ.
As in Britain the egalitarianism of the postwar generation fades and the wealthy again begin to assert their moral superiority to the poor, the warning issued by James becomes ever more relevant.