From Partiality to Mercy: Part 1

1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in afine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?

8 If, however, you are fulfilling 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 and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1-13)

Today we will be looking at verses 5-13 in James 2 to find out how we move, individually and as a local body of Christ, from partiality to mercy.

Partiality is known by many names in our country. Some of the more familiar ones are racism, bigotry, classism, and sexism, but all of these terms describe what the Bible calls partiality or personal favoritism. So today we will see what the Word of God has to say to us regarding partiality. 

Usually when I have an opportunity to preach to you, we look at two to four verses at a time, but today we will be looking at nine verses, because what James has to share with us in these verse is so intertwined and critical for us to understand. So it might be helpful today if we take a broad look at what James is saying to us and then we can come back and take a deeper dive the next time at some of the key elements of these verses. 

Last time we looked at verses 1-4 of chapter 2, in which James instructed us not to hold our faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. Because Jesus, who we say we trust and love as Lord and Savior, does not show personal favoritism, then our trust and love for Him is not compatible with us holding or having an attitude of personal favoritism ourselves.

James goes on to give a hypothetical situation that points out how even in a church service we can show a preference for the rich over the poor: giving the rich man special attention and a preferred place to sit, while disregarding the poor man and giving him an undesirable place to sit. As we looked at last time, James says that when we have an attitude of personal favoritism in the church we create divisions among ourselves and our motives are evil.

So today, the passage we are going to look at starts with a call for us to listen closely, to pay attention to what he is about to say, because it is extremely important! And he also wanted those who would receive his letter to be reminded again of his great love and affection for them, so that they would understand that what he is saying to them is out of love for them and that he knows he is no better than them in this matter, but he is one of them, so he continually calls them brothers. He says to them…

Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)

James points out that God has chosen the poor to be saved and He counts them among His faithful here on earth, and He has made them a prominent part of the population of heaven, where they will no longer be poor in any respect because they will be living in their Father’s house, comforted and well taken care of! James is not saying that God is going to sovereignly save every poor person, but he is saying that the poor will be well represented among those that the Lord calls His own possession. 

If God has set His affections on the poor of this world, and if He is at work saving them, how does He look upon us when we show partiality against the poor? James tells us in the beginning of verse 6, as he accuses the brothers that he loves, the brothers that he wrote this letter to, he tells them that they have shown personal favoritism against the poor, and by doing so they have dishonored the poor man. And even though we are not the original recipients of this letter, in the providence of God who has kept His Word alive and available through all generations, James is writing to us as well, and we stand before God just as guilty as the original recipients of this letter. 

When you and I show personal favoritism against the poor we dishonor them. To flesh that out just a little bit, when we show personal favoritism against the poor, we are dishonest with them, we rob them, we have stolen from them, those who are created in the image of God, we have stolen from them the right to be treated as equals, because they are just as important as we are, no less. In fact, there is only one kind of favoritism that God has approved of in the church, only one kind of favoritism that should be welcomed in the church. The only acceptable kind of favoritism in the church is this: to regard one another as more important than yourself, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:3. So no matter who comes through these doors, we should esteem them as more important, of greater stature and status than ourselves. So not just the rich man is due special attention by us, but everyone is due special attention by us, if we truly see others as more important than ourselves.

As James continues in verse 6 and into verse 7, he makes a common sense argument for not treating the rich with personal favoritism which favors them. He asks two rhetorical question that point out how foolish it was for them to favor the rich in hopes of getting a material benefit. He says, “Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?” He is pointing out that the rich they were trying to impress and treat with special attention in hopes of getting something from them were the same rich who were giving them grief and slandering and abusing the name of Christ, persecuting them and dragging them into court. 

All you have to do is take a cursory look at the Gospels and the book of Acts and you will see that those in positions of power and wealth for the most part were not on the side of the Christ and His disciples. From King Herod in Matthew 2 who tried to kill Jesus after His birth, and went so far as to have every male child from two years old and under who were living in and around Bethlehem killed, to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judea who had Jesus crucified (John 19), and the chief priests and the scribes in between who were seeking how to destroy Jesus (Mark 11:18). And all throughout the book of Acts we see the disciples being arrested and imprisoned and beaten by those in positions of wealth and power because of the name of Christ.

So James’ common sense argument that the rich in most cases were not going to help them, but were more likely to cause them hardship, is a very compelling one given the early history of the church. Not only were the rich likely to cause the believer grief, they were likely to slander and abuse the fair and glorious name of Christ, to speak ill of His name and to misrepresent His character. 

We know from Scripture not everyone with means was against Christ. There were Matthew and Zaccheus, tax collectors, and Lydia, a businesswoman from Thyratira, living in Philippi, and others that the Lord called to be His possession. God is not partial against the rich or the poor.

So what relevance do the two rhetorical questions James asked have today on our society, and more importantly on the church? While we as a nation, and even some in the church, often blame the poor for most of the social ills we face – everything from teen pregnancy, to fatherless families, to crime – the reality is the poor do not produce and promote the depiction of sin that passes for much of what we see on television and in movies, where the name of God, the name of Jesus Christ can be taken in vain and blasphemed without any regard; it is not the poor but the wealthy who do that. The poor did not remove corporate prayer out of the schools in this country, those in positions of power and wealth did that. The poor did not legalize abortion in this country and place abortion clinics all across our nation, those in positions of power and authority and wealth made that happen. The poor did not develop a culture of gambling in this country where state after state has established a lottery and new casinos are not just confined to Las Vegas but are springing up across the country. No, it is not the poor but the wealthy who have brought these evils on our society, and I could go on with the sin that has been fostered, supported, and even made into law, not by the poor but by those with power, authority, and wealth. The poor are not innocent, because none of us are, but they are not the cause of all our ills and the rich are not the solution. 

The bottom line is there are those who are rich in our country and in this world who are out front and behind the scenes actively working to oppress believers and the poor, and to slander the name of Christ. James is helping us to see that the challenges of life are not going to be met by courting the rich to win their favor. All the money in the world cannot buy true and lasting peace, in your heart and mind and with your neighbor, it cannot buy joy, a joy that endures no matter what the circumstances of life are. All the money in the world cannot redeem us from death and hell or buy God’s forgiveness and restore our relationship with Him. Only the shed blood of Jesus Christ is a suitable payment. 

But you might be struggling financially or just apprehensive about your financial future and sitting here thinking, “But money can buy the material things I need, the food and a place to live and clothes to wear. Why not look to the wealthy to help?” I say to you this morning, the Lord is still the answer! Jesus says…

25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? 28 “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 30 “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! 31 “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32 “For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33)

God is the one we must turn to to take care of all of our needs – material, physical, emotional, spiritual. He is our all and all. Our hope and trust must be in Christ. And if we are trusting Christ and fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we are doing well. 

To love our neighbor as ourselves is part of the Old Testament Law that God gave to Israel through Moses, you will find it in Leviticus 19:18. And Jesus affirms how significant this law is when He was asked by a scribe in Mark 12:28, “What commandment is foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ “The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

In the mind of Christ, loving God must be tied to loving others, without division or personal favoritism. Whether that has to do with someone’s economic status, the color of their skin, their culture, or anything else, we must value no one as less than ourselves and we must not presume to know anything about anyone based on their outward appearance. We must love others as Jesus loves others, impartially, especially in the body of Christ. Jesus did not just speak His royal law of love, He lived it, and fulfilled the law perfectly. The creator and Lord of all came down from heaven, took on flesh, and became not only our Lord, but He also became our neighbor. He loved us as He loved himself and as He loved the Father, so much so that He gave His life for us so that we could be saved. The poor and the rich, every color, every culture, every nation, tall and short, young and old, male and female, the scholar and the uneducated, He loved us all and He died for us all. 

If you have been saved by Him and if you follow Him, you do very well if you love your neighbor as yourself. But if we show partiality, we are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. To show partiality is no small matter, it is a sin and an affront to our Lord who loves us and the Spirit of God who lives in us. Partiality or personal favoritism against the poor or against the rich is sin, partiality against any group of people is sin. And there are no acceptable or small sins to God. Let me give you an example from the Word of God regarding where the sin of partiality can take us if we are not careful. Jesus says…

19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 “And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)

How could the rich man, or any man, have just walked by Lazarus and not felt compassion for him laying there in such a helpless state? The rich man could only have walked by Lazarus not once, but day after day as Lazarus laid at his gate, because he saw him as unimportant. He did not see him as a brother, or as one made in the image of God, but he saw him as less than, as insignificant. His partiality ran against Lazarus. This is where the sin of partiality can lead: to pride, arrogance, and greed if we allow partiality to spring up and grow in our heart. 

If we show partiality, we find ourselves convicted by the law as transgressors, law breakers. James shows us the magnitude of breaking God’s law in verses 10 and 11… 

10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11)

James rightly points out the oneness of God’s law. The Bible, which is the Word of God, does not say the “laws” of God, it refers to the commandments of God as the “law” of God. Collectively, all that God has commanded is one unified law. Each commandment tightly joined together to reveal to us God’s character and to give us God’s will for us. And Jesus distills all of God’s commandments in sixty-six books down to two: love God and love others.

Who has kept the whole law and not even stumbled in one point? Certainly not me and certainly not you. James is being very kind in setting up his argument as though you and I could ever live an almost sinless life. We all know we have sinned in many points, in many ways, breaking the law of God repeatedly, daily. Each time we sin, we’re showing contempt for God’s authority and rule over our life. So you see what a hopeless state we are all in, everyone on the planet, if we are judged according to the righteous law of God. We are all transgressors of His law, we stand totally and utterly guilty before Him. Do you see how absurd partiality is? Because we are all in the same boat before God! Hopeless and helpless! But praise God, James is writing to believers, to us who are judged by the law of liberty, the law of freedom that says He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). The law of liberty says…..

28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. (Matthew 11:28-29)

8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:8-10)

The law of liberty says that the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:5).

James says to us this morning that if this is who we are, beloved and saved by God, filled with the Spirit of God, then act like it. He says in verse 12, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”

As believers we will be judged, but our judgment will have nothing to do with the wrath of God, because Jesus has taken care of that for us. Our judgment will be about, did we live in a manner worthy of the calling with which we were called? Did we walk in love toward everyone, just as Christ loved us and died for us? We will be rewarded or not based on how we lived in response to our salvation.

Jesus has shown us the ultimate love and compassion, and James is saying that you and I must be people who are not only just and impartial, but people who are full of love, compassion, and mercy. 

For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)

Just as Jesus said, those who do not forgive others will not be forgiven their transgressions by the Father (Matthew 6:15). Jesus is not advocating a type of works righteousness, and neither is James. Jesus is saying that the hallmark of a believer is to be forgiving. Believers will forgive others. And James here is saying that the hallmark of a believer is that he is merciful.

Yes we can struggle with being merciful, just as we can struggle with forgiveness, but for the believer, God gives His Word to be applied to our heart so that the Spirit of God will enlighten us and convict us so we grow in our ability to be merciful, and as sure as day follows night, believers who are not now merciful will surely learn to be merciful if they belong to Christ. 

In Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus, we must be the ones who would not walk by or step over Lazarus, but see him as created in the image of God, as one of our brothers, and pick him up, clean him, dress his wounds, and sit him at our table. That is what we must do for everyone who walks through those doors and is broken and in need.

Regarding mercy triumphing over judgment, the righteous judgment that a Holy God rightly demands for those who break His righteous law has been met by the holy and righteous Jesus on our behalf. He kept the law in every point, fulfilling it perfectly, and died so His righteousness could be applied to us. 

So given what the Word of God has spoken to our hearts, what should we do now?

The first thing you can do is ask the Lord to search your heart, to see if there is anyone in this local body of believers that you have in any way seen or treated as less important than yourself. If the Lord brings conviction to your heart, repent and ask for the Lord’s forgiveness, then go and treat that person or persons with the love and kindness that the Lord has shown you.

If you have not already done so, get involved in a ministry or ministries that allow you to serve in the local body without partiality. For example, those who lead us in musical worship lead everyone. Those who work in the counseling ministry help everyone who needs counseling without partiality within the body. The deacons work to meet the needs of those in the body without partiality. One of the best ways to make sure we are not being partial is to serve the body in a broad way, reaching many. 

Finally, look for ways to help your brothers and sisters based on need, and not based on how well you know them. So as you are made aware of the needs in the body, the question we should be asking ourselves is, “Has God blessed me with the resources to meet that need?” If so, go meet that need. Then you will be practicing mercy without partiality. Resources are not only money, but time, information or knowledge, physical ability.

We can and must be the face of justice, impartiality, and mercy in the body of Christ, the Lord’s example to the world.

5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?

8 If, however, you are fulfilling 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 and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:5-13)