The Fatal Flaw of Favoritism

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 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, 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,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 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? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 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 guilty of 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 mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13 ESV

James ended the previous section of his letter by inviting his readers to take a long, close look at themselves in the mirror to determine the true nature of their spiritual condition.

For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 NLT

The Word of God requires obedience. Intellectual assent is not enough. Knowledge without application is nothing more than hypocrisy.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

So, James provided a practical and timeless illustration of the Word applied to everyday life. He raises the ugly specter of partiality within the body of Christ. And there is an interesting, yet subtle, connection between James’ warnings about practicing partiality and their handling of the trials of life.

Back in chapter one, James mentioned two different groups of people who comprise the church: the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. – James 1:9-10 NLT

Now he expands on the potentially contentious relationship between these two disparate groups. Their coexistence within the church is a potential time bomb that threatens to destroy the corporate unity of the fellowship. And, sadly, many of the trials of the less fortunate are due to the inequitable and unjust actions of the wealthy and influential – even within the body of Christ.

There was a common misconception in James’ day that the wealthy were blessed by God. Their affluence was seen as a sign that they had found pleasure with God and had been deemed to be more spiritual. At the same time, poverty was viewed as a curse from God. Despite James’ earlier statement, most people saw no honor in being poor. That condition was to be avoided at all costs. And if you could somehow escape your impoverished circumstances, you should do so without delay.

This errant perspective on wealth and poverty was negatively impacting the health of the local congregation to which James wrote. They were allowing a spirit of unjustified favoritism to influence their daily interactions, and it was motivated by the potential for personal gain. When the church gathered for worship, the wealthy were being treated as first-class citizens and given the best seats in the house – all in the hopes of securing their favor. But James questions the motivation behind their actions.

…how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? – James 2:1 NLT

And he doesn’t sugarcoat his assessment of their problem. Instead, he goes straight to their practice of partiality in worship.

…suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:2-4 NLT

James introduces a real problem within the church by presenting it as a thinly veiled hypothetical situation. It’s as if he is saying, “So, for instance, let’s just say a rich man comes into your church and you show him preference over a poor man…”

James isn’t suggesting this scene could happen; he was subtly declaring that it already had. And he declares that this kind of unjustified partiality was motivated by prejudice and pride. They were guilty of judging one another based on an unrighteous standard.

“The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: ‘You have, haven’t you?’ The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (1:8).” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on James

The practice of partiality is a form of prejudice. It elevates one individual over another based on a false set of external criteria that have nothing to do with the individual’s true value or worth. Rich people are not inherently more spiritual or worthy of honor. Poor people are not to be treated as second-class citizens simply because their clothes and financial status don’t measure up to some arbitrary social standard.  James was warning his readers that they needed to view one another the same way God does.

When God commissioned the prophet Samuel to find the next king of Israel, He warned His servant not to be taken in by the outer appearance of the candidates.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Just because someone looked like a king didn’t mean he had the attributes necessary to fulfill the role of king. God was more interested in the inner character of the man than any external traits he may have displayed.

But how easy it is to judge one another based on an arbitrary and inconsistent set of standards that have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or holiness. This led James to remind his audience that many of them had come to faith in Christ while in a state of abject poverty. God had chosen to redeem them, not because they were wealthy and influential, but based solely on His grace and mercy.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? – James 2:5 NLT

God didn’t reserve salvation for the well-to-do. He didn’t send His Son to die only for those who measured up to some worldly standard of worth and merit. No, Jesus came to offer the gift of salvation to all those who were humble enough to admit their need for it. He spent the vast majority of His time on earth ministering to the poor and disenfranchised. He reached out to the dregs of humanity – the tax collectors, prostitutes, maimed, blind, demon-possessed, and even the lowly and despised Gentiles.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:7 ESV). Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with financial status but it has everything to do with humility and an awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Eternal life is not reserved for the wealthy and well-off. It is the gift of God made possible through the death of His Son and is available to any who will receive it in humility and faith – regardless of their earthly status or social standing.

Yet, James accuses his audience of dishonoring the poor by showing favor to the wealthy. Then he reminds them of the ludicrous nature of this kind of behavior.

…you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

They were treating the poor like social pariahs while honoring the very people who were oppressing and mistreating them. What would possess these people to show favoritism to the very ones who were causing them trials and troubles? The simple answer is greed. They hoped to gain something from the flattery of their more well-to-do foes. Perhaps if they treated their rich guests with dignity and respect, they might return the favor. After all, the wealthy had resources and wielded great influence in the community, and the poor were nothing more than a burden on the faith community.

But James warns that this kind of logic was not only dangerous, but it was also ungodly and in violation of God’s law.

But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:9 NLT

James specifically mentions one particular law: “the royal law according to the Scripture” (James 2:8 ESV). Then, just to make sure they understood what he meant, he quotes the law for them.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” – James 2:8 ESV

Again, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus affirmed this “royal law” when He stated, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Jesus was not recommending the practice of preferential treatment in order to get a preferred response. He was promoting the practice of equity and selfless love. We are not to love based on what we get out of it. Christlike love is not a form of quid pro quo where our love is reciprocal in nature. It is not a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back kind of equation. Yet the practice of partiality is almost always selfish and self-centered. 

To drive home his point, James reminds his readers of the importance of every one of God’s laws. They were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. And he uses the rather absurd example of murder and adultery. They weren’t free to commit murder just because they had never committed adultery.

the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT

God expected His children to keep all of His laws, including His royal law to love one another. So, favoritism had no place in the household of God. As far as God was concerned, partiality was a sin and unacceptable behavior among His chosen people. And James provides them with a stern reminder of how God views those who receive His undeserved mercy but refuse to share it with others.

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. – James 2:13 NLT

And once again, James seems to be echoing the words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7 ESV

The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of just how important it is to live according to God’s standards and not the world’s. There is no place for partiality in the family of God.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.