Don’t play favorites
Stop humiliating poor people1 Dear family, there’s something I want you to stop doing. Stop playing favorites. There’s no place for it here, in this faith based on our wonderful leader, Jesus the Messiah. 2 Here’s what I’m talking about. Let’s say two men walk into your worship service. One man wears a gold ring and stylish clothes. The other man is quite obviously destitute and dirty. 3 And let’s say you give a little extra TLC to the man wearing fine clothes. You personally usher him up to a good seat and tell him, “You can sit right here.” But when it comes to the poor man, you tell him, “You’ll have to stand over there, or if you need to sit down you can sit over here where I rest my feet.”
4 If you do this, aren’t you discriminating against the poor man? Aren’t you setting yourself up as a judge—and not a good judge—but an evil judge with selfish motives? 5 Listen here, my dear family. Out of all the people in the world, didn’t God choose the poor to be among the richest in faith? Didn’t he give them the kingdom he promised to those who love him? 6 But you humiliate the poor. Why do you hurt them like that when it’s the rich who hurt you? Isn’t it the rich people who lawyer up and haul your sorry self into court? 7 Isn’t it the rich who dishonor the honorable name by which you’re known?
8 Here’s what you need to do if you want to do well. Obey this top law that’s in the Bible: “Love your neighbor every bit as much as you love yourself.”  9 But if you keep playing favorites like this, you’re committing a sin and breaking the law.
Obey the law of Love Your Neighbor10 If you obey every law but one, that one is going to take you down. It works this way: If you break one law, you might as well have broken them all—because you have broken the law. 11 God said, “Don’t cheat on your spouse by committing adultery.” He also said, “Don’t murder people.” You might not cheat on your spouse. But if you murder someone, you have broken the law. 12 We are judged by the law of Love Your Neighbor. Talk like it. Act like it.
13 Mercy beats judgment. But I’m telling you if you don’t show mercy, judgment is going to be merciless.
Got faith? Prove it.14 Come on, family, what good is it to say you’re a believer if you don’t act like it? If you believe it, you do it. If you don’t do it, do you really expect that kind of religion is going to save you? 15 Let’s say a Christian man or woman doesn’t have enough clothes and needs some help putting food on the table every day. 16 And let’s say someone in your group sends them on their way with a line like this, “Hey, peace to you. I hope you’re able to stay warm and eat your fill.” But you don’t give them anything they need for their body. What good is that?
17 The faith we have when we believe can’t survive trapped inside us. It has to get out and get busy. If it doesn’t get to work doing good things for others, it’ll die. 18 Someone might argue with me and say they have the gift of faith, while I have the gift of helping others. Well here’s what I say. Show me your faith when you do nothing about it. I’ll show you my faith in all I do. 19 You believe in the one true God, which is good. That said, big deal. Even the demons believe in God. His power terrifies them.
Abraham, Rahab: Two doers20 You empty-headed person, how about I teach you something? I’ll prove to you that the faith of a person is useless if the person doesn’t do anything to help others. 21 Our ancestor Abraham offered to kill his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on the altar. That very act justified the confidence God put in him and strengthened their relationship. 22 Abraham’s faith was there all along. But what he did took his faith to the next level. What we do expresses our faith, it completes it.
23 That’s what the Bible is talking about when it says, “Abraham believed God, and God recognized him as a good and righteous man.” God even called him “my friend.” 24 So you can see that a person gets on good terms with God because they express their faith by the things they do. Not by merely believing he exists. 25 Rahab, the prostitute, is another good example. Didn’t God approve of her because she sheltered our spies and sent them safely on their way?
26 A body that doesn’t breathe is a corpse. Faith that doesn’t get up and go and do good things is just as dead.
James may be referring to Jesus Christ since followers of Jesus were sometimes known as Christians. “It was here, in Antioch, that people started calling the believers Christians” (Acts 11:26).
“Top law” is more literally “Royal law.” It means the law of the ruler, or the king, for whoever the top dog is.
James is quoting Leviticus 19:18. And if this James is the brother of Jesus, he may have heard Jesus quote this, too (Luke 10:27).
“Love Your Neighbor” is more literally “the law that brings freedom.” Some Bible experts explain that the law of freedom is the one James quoted in 2:8. This law frees believers in the sense it takes them to the end of the line—the goal of the law that God gave Jews during Old Testament times. When an expert in the Jewish religious law asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to love God with all his heart and love his neighbor as much as he loves himself. Then Jesus said, “Now go and do it and you’ll live” (Luke 10:28). James seems to be saying much the same.
A more literal phrasing reads this way: “Some will say, “You have faith and I have works.’” But it’s not clear who’s doing the talking, or who “you” and “I” represent. For example, is the speaker an unbeliever who’s telling James “You have faith” but the speaker does good things for others? Or is this James referring to himself with “I have works”? Bible translators have to guess. The Casual English Bible makes the guess that the speaker is a believer who agrees with James, but who argues that it’s possible for a Christian to have faith without doing good deeds. A Christian who’s sick or isolated for some reason might be an example.
James seems to be referring to the creedal-like statement of the Jewish faith, expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4. “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (New Living Translation).
A more literal description is that Abraham was “justified by works” when he offered to sacrifice Isaac.
James said, “Out of all the people in the world, didn’t God choose the poor to be among the richest in faith?” (2:5). Think about the people you’ve known. Based on your experiences, do you agree with what James has said? If so, why do you think poor folks are more likely to have faith than rich folks are?
James does not come across as a big fan of rich people: “Why do you hurt them [poor people] like that when it’s the rich who hurt you? Isn’t it the rich people who lawyer up and haul your sorry self into court? Isn’t it the rich who dishonor the honorable name by which you’re known?” (2:6-7). If you had to make a list of reasons why someone like James would not think kindly of rich people, what would you put on that list?
James says that the “top law… In the Bible” is “Love your neighbor every bit as much as you love yourself” (2:8). He’s only half right. The first part of that law says we should love God. Why do you think he left off that first part?
James pushes hard for people to express their faith through their behavior. James would be happy to see a church doing mission work in the community and abroad. Can you think of exceptions to the rule, however? Are there people of faith who aren’t able to do much about it?
James says that “to keep playing favorites like this, you’re committing a sin and breaking the law” (2:9). Do you think he’s talking about the law he just mentioned, “Love your neighbor every bit as much as you love yourself” (2:8)? If so, what’s wrong with showing a little extra love to one neighbor, as long as he’s not wearing “a gold ring and stylish clothes” (2:2)?
James uses Abraham and Rahab the prostitute as examples of people God accepted because of their actions. There are plenty of other examples in the Bible James used, which is what Christians usually call the Old Testament. There are examples from the New Testament. What are some examples that come to mind; who are some of the people who practiced what they preached? Who are some people you can think of that you know who express their faith by helping others?
James might seem a little out of sync with something Paul taught. Paul said, “You’re saved out of the kindness of God when you take that leap of faith and believe” (Ephesians 2:8). But James seems to say that faith alone is not enough: “So you can see that a person gets on good terms with God because they express their faith by the things they do. Not by merely believing he exists” (2:24). If we could get James and Paul in a room to talk about this, how do you think they would work it out?
LIFE APPLICATION. James says that it would be wrong to treat a “destitute and dirty” guest at church with any less respect than we give to a rich man wearing “a gold ring and stylish clothes” (2:2). Think of some churches you have attended, and how they would react to a poorly dressed and dirty visitor. Of the possible reactions listed here, which could you see as most likely in one of those churches?
- Security would take note of him and keep eyes on him for as long as he remains on the property.
- Parishioners would give him a lot of elbow room.
- Church leaders would go out of their way to greet him.
- Someone would invite him to lunch.
- He would feel invisible by the time he left church.
LIFE APPLICATION. James says it’s wrong to discriminate against people. He asks people who do that, “Aren’t you setting yourself up as a judge—and not a good judge—but an evil judge with selfish motives?” (2:4). In what ways do you think we Christians discriminate, either personally or together as a church body?