Avoid snobbery: keep the royal law
1-7Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ! Suppose one man comes into your meeting well-dressed and with a gold ring on his finger, and another man, obviously poor, arrives in shabby clothes. If you pay special attention to the well-dressed man by saying, “Please sit here—it’s an excellent seat”, and say to the poor man, “You stand over there, please, or if you must sit, sit on the floor”, doesn’t that prove that you are making class-distinctions in your mind, and setting yourselves up to assess a man’s quality?—a very bad thing. For do notice, my brothers, that God chose poor men, whose only wealth was their faith, and made them heirs to the kingdom promised to those who love him. And if you behave as I have suggested, it is the poor man that you are insulting.
We do well to remember that James wrote to a very partial age, filled with prejudice and hatred based on class, ethnicity, nationality, and religious background. In the ancient world people were routinely and permanently categorized because they were Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever. A significant aspect of the work of Jesus was to break down these walls that divided humanity, and to bring forth one new race of mankind in Him.
Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV)
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Look around you. Isn’t it the rich who are always trying to “boss” you, isn’t it the rich who drag you into litigation? Isn’t it usually the rich who blaspheme the glorious name by which you are known? 8-11 If you obey the royal law, expressed by the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, all is well. But once you allow any invidious distinctions to creep in, you are sinning, you have broken God’s Law.
Hearing Jesus in James:
Matthew 22:36-39 (New International Version)
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Remember that a man who keeps the whole Law but for a single exception is none the less a law-breaker. The one who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’, also said, ‘Do not murder’. If you were to keep clear of adultery but were to murder a man you would have become a breaker of God’s whole Law.
We are easily inclined to choose which of God’s words are relevant and meaningful to us and which we can safely discard. St. Augustine says (and I am paraphrasing) — Those who choose which pieces of the Gospel to believe and which not, believe not in the Gospel but in themselves.
12-13 Anyway, you should speak and act as men who will be judged by the law of freedom. The man who makes no allowances for others will find none made for him.
Hearing Jesus in James:
Matthew 6:15 (New International Version)
“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
It is still true that “mercy smiles in the face of judgment.”
The relation between faith and action
Now what use is it, my brothers, for a man to say he “has faith” if his actions do not correspond with it? Could that sort of faith save anyone’s soul?
James did not contradict the Apostle Paul, who insisted that we are saved not of works (Ephesians 2:9). James merely clarifies for us the kind of faith that saves. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works; but saving faith will have works that accompany it. As a saying goes: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone; it has good works with it.
If a fellow man or woman has no clothes to wear and nothing to eat, and one of you say, “Good luck to you I hope you’ll keep warm and find enough to eat”, and yet give them nothing to meet their physical needs, what on earth is the good of that? Yet that is exactly what a bare faith without a corresponding life is like—useless and dead. If we only “have faith” a man could easily challenge us by saying, “you say that you have faith and I have merely good actions. Well, all you can do is to show me a faith without corresponding actions, but I can show you by my actions that I have faith as well.”
The faith that does not change my life will not save my soul.
Hearing Jesus in James:
Matthew 7:16 (New International Version)
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
To the man who thinks that faith by itself is enough I feel inclined to say, “So you believe that there is one God? That’s fine. So do all the devils in hell and shudder in terror!” For, my dear short-sighted man, can’t you see far enough to realise that faith without the right actions is dead and useless? Think of Abraham, our ancestor. Wasn’t it his action which really justified him in God’s sight when his faith led him to offer his son Isaac on the altar?
Can’t you see that his faith and his actions were, so to speak, partners—that his faith was implemented by his deed? That is what the scripture means when it says: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God.’
24-25 A man is justified before God by what he does as well as by what he believes. Rahab who was a prostitute and a foreigner has been quoted as an example of faith, yet surely it was her action that pleased God, when she welcomed Joshua’s reconnoitring party and got them safely back by a different route.
26 Yes, faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul.
The lesson from Abraham is clear: if we believe in God, we will do what He tells us to do. The lesson from Rahab is also clear: if we believe in God, we will help His people, even when it costs us something.
“My Own Little World” by Matthew West. Wow. Are you willing to take a risk with your faith and serve others in a way slightly out of your comfort zone?
J. B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”, 1962 edition by HarperCollins