Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 1:19-28; James 2:1-13; Ecclesiastes 2:12-16; Jeremiah 6
Now that James has introduced his main theme, he starts to address the practicalities of not being polluted by the world. We might expect him to launch into an attack on idol worship, sexual sins, drunkenness or some other obvious wrong-doing. Instead he hits a lot closer to home and brings up something anyone could be hiding in their hearts: favouritism. Treating someone more favourably because of their wealth is wrong. The wealthy were treated very differently in James’s world, and the same happens today with the ‘beautiful people’ of our world. Their world’s discrimination was creeping into their church, and how often has the same happened today? Would we offer a seat to someone wealthy, well-known, or well-endowed, and not do the same for a poor, unknown, down-and-out person? If so, James says we are acting in contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
While our culture values image and fame, God treasures the poor (Luke 6:20). He has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith. Ironically, by viewing the poor as less important, we are rejecting those who may be strong in the faith we uphold. At the same time, the rich may be undermining what is important to us. Part of the problem is that by favouring one group, we dishonour others. If we want to be seen with the ‘in’ people, we undermine the value of those we avoid. By shunning certain people, at school, work or where we live, we buy into the world system that says their ‘type’ is less valuable.
James calls such thinking evil (v. 4). It involves judging a person’s value because of some external criteria. Favouring those strong in the world insults those who are weak in the world’s eyes, which is ultimately a rejection of God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). In addition, showing favouritism breaks the ‘royal law’ to love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39). James picks up on Jesus’ teaching that breaking the law in one point makes one guilty of the whole law. Jesus equated the sinfulness of lusting with adultery (Matthew 5:28), and James links adultery with murder (2:11). All are sins against neighbours and thus dishonour them. They put personal gratification above loving others and fulfilling our commitments to others. They all leave us as lawbreakers.
The law of the world is to favour the favourites: love those you think will love you back. But experience shows the world doesn’t work that way: they favoured the rich, yet the rich were taking them to court. They bought into the way of the world and did not treat the poor with mercy; they too were not shown mercy by the world (James 2:13).
Instead, we should be merciful (Luke 6:36) because God is merciful (Exodus 34:5-6). Our faith should be demonstrated by our words and actions (2:12). James concludes with a call to let mercy triumph over judgment. The law that gives freedom is that implanted in Christians through the love and mercy of God. That should lead to love of neighbour, not favouritism. By living out the law of love that Jesus brings, we will find true freedom and be blessed (James 1:25).