Respect of Persons
Practical Christian counsel from James 2. 1-5
Owing to the unequal distribution of wealth and its advantages this evil of partiality has always been very common in the world. The social earth, like the physical, is composed of different layers or "strata". The lower classes have deferred to the higher and the higher have despised the lower. We are living now in a great levelling time when, as the Bible foretold, the valleys are being exalted and the mountains and hills being made low. This has occasioned great social upheavals, symbolic earthquakes, which we know from Scripture will get yet more intense. This evil, so prevalent in the world, had found entry into the church in the time of James. It has been present in the church of Christ ever since, and was one of the main causes of the great apostasy. When the church began to lose her first love she began to pander to the great and to despise the poor. There followed a lowering of spiritual standards and the wheat field became overrun with tares.
In James 2.2,3 the writer calls the attention of the brethren to what was taking place in their midst. He presents a hypothetical case that the context shows may well have been founded on fact. If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say 'Have a seat here please' while to the one who is poor you say 'Stand there', or 'sit at my feet,' have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (RSV) The word for assembly is in fact 'synagogue' and is the only place in the New Testament where that word is applied to a Christian church. James is writing to Jewish Christians who had been accustomed to meeting in the synagogue and had carried the name with them into their Christian fellowship. The word 'synagogue' means "assembly", and the Christian equivalent 'church' or 'ecclesia' means "called out assembly". The distinction is quite significant, as the synagogue or assembly was associated with natural Israel, while the church or called out assembly is associated with the spiritual Israel.
The two different characters which James pictures coming into their assembly were evidently visitors, just as we might have strangers dropping into our services. One is rich and the other poor, and for no other reason than the mere circumstances of outward dress the one is treated with great respect and the other with scant courtesy. What would be the motives behind such conduct? Would it be that the former was at once regarded as an asset to the meeting and the other perhaps a liability? How would we feel in similar circumstances? While none of us would go the length of showing such respect of persons as James pictures here, is it not true that we all have to fight against the almost innate tendency to defer to wealth and worldly position?
In verses 1, 4 and 5 James mentions three considerations which should help to keep us free from the evil of respect of persons. Verse 1. "My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Christ, the Lord of glory."(RSV) The New Testament speaks of faith sometimes as a principle like hope and love. It also speaks of faith as the whole system of belief centring in Christ, as when we are exhorted to 'contend earnestly for the faith'. Thus we can have faith in the faith. The brethren to whom James was writing had come out of the Jewish faith, centring in Moses, into the faith of Christ. This faith was wholly incompatible with respect of persons. Had Jesus been born in the palace of kings, consorted with the rich and the great of this world, and died in honour and esteem of all men, then there might be some room for respect of persons. There is good reason to believe that James was the brother of the Lord, and none knew better than he the lowly life of the Son of God. Following the birth in the stable of the overcrowded inn there was the humble peasant's home at Nazareth. Following the long years of patient toil in the carpenter's shop there were the three and a half years of the Lord's ministry. From the very beginning of this ministry, so far as the great and rich and wise were concerned, He was despised and rejected. It was the common people who heard Him gladly. Publicans and sinners were drawn to Him; even His apostles were ignorant and unlearned men. Yet so far from being disappointed Jesus had prayed "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes". (Luke 10.21 RSV)
It was not because Jesus was not great that He associated with humble people, but because He was so great. As the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, had chosen the humble, so James reminds us in this verse that Jesus, although the friend of publicans and sinners, was nevertheless the Lord of glory. Against the background of the example of the Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus how ashamed we should feel of any taint in us of this evil of respect of persons.
In Verse 4 we have another helpful consideration. "Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges of evil thoughts?" Weymouth's translation makes this verse clear. It reads "is it not plain that in your hearts you have little faith seeing that you have become judges full of wrong thoughts?" It is a very serious thing to sit in judgment upon anyone, for "with what judgment you judge you shall be judged", our Lord declares, if our judgment of others is just and based upon right principles and tempered with mercy it reflects credit on us. If, however, we who are being trained to be the judges of the world are so deficient in discernment that we base our judgment on externals such as differences associated with the possession or other material things we condemn ourselves as unfit for the position. It indicates that we cannot judge properly because we ourselves do not have the proper sense of true values. As Weymouth says "In our hearts we have little faith". As a speaker said on 'Thought for the Day' some years ago, 'we are living in a world of make believe, almost like Alice in Wonderland'. The most valueless things fetch the highest prices and the most valuable and precious things are least esteemed and cost the least. Things like worldly fame, power, prestige, riches, learning, were all eagerly sought for and the highest prices paid even to the spending of life itself in their attainment. On the other hand the things that God highly esteems, such as love, peace, kindness, goodness, self-control, faithfulness are lightly valued. Surely the representatives of the Heavenly Kingdom should demonstrate what the true values are in this 'world of make believe'.
In Verse 5, James gives us the third consideration why we should beware of respect of persons. "Listen, my beloved brethren. 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?" James feels this danger of respect of persons to be so great that he asks them to "listen" to him further in the matter. He calls them "his beloved brethren" to assure them that he has a deep concern for their spiritual welfare. In this he reminds us of what we may already have noted in other parts of the New Testament. It is not a matter of chance accident that it is the poor who are attracted to our worship. This is the result of God's choice in the matter. Mary expressed this principle even before Jesus was born. "..he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted them of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away." Luke 1.51-53 RSV). No flesh may glory in God's presence; meekness and humility are essential in those whom He causes to approach to Himself. It is not, however, that no great or rich or noble are called, but not many. There are a few, but only a few, and the reason for this is illustrated in the case of the rich young ruler. He went away sadly for he had great possessions, and when he had gone Jesus said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter to the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Luke 18.24,25 RSV). In this, as in so many other things, we see God's compensating grace. He is no respecter of persons, choosing the poor simply because they are poor. But it is amongst the common people that there exists those conditions which are most fitted for the development of the essential qualities of faith, meekness and humility. If we are tempted to feel envious of those better off than ourselves let us remember that "God has chosen" the poor of this world to be His heirs and there can be no greater honour than this.
To be poor, however, is not the only requisite, for not all the poor are chosen by God. James mentions another qualification. "Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith?" Luther is said to have called this letter of James 'an epistle of straw' because of its emphasis on works. It is very evident, however, that James had a proper realization of the need for and value of faith. In saying that God has chosen the poor, rich in faith, he does not mean that they were rich in faith before being chosen, for a rich faith can only be produced by the operation of the grace of God. There must have been an initial faith making them prepared like Abraham to leave their own people and their father's house. Richness of faith comes afterwards as a result of God's training. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. As illustrated in Pilgrim's Progress, it is sometimes very dim at first. The Evangelist points Christian to the wicket gate and says "Do you see yon wicket gate?" But Christian cannot see it, only the shining light which is beside it and which he takes as his guide to it. After he enters the way his faith becomes rich as a result of his experiences.
Continuing, James says "Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world, to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to those who love him?" ". Paul says the heir, when a child, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. This is the position with regard to God's heirs. We are waiting for our coming of age, our adoption, as it is put in Romans 8. So great is our inheritance that it embraces all things, as Paul declares "For all things are yours, whether the world, or life, or death, or present, or the future, all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God" (1 Cor.3.22, 23). Respect of persons arising from existing social inequalities affects us sometimes by inducing in us a feeling of inferiority when in contact with others whose dress, or house, or education or social position is much superior to our own. If we could only realize a fraction of what it means to be heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ how paltry and insignificant these differences would appear to be!
Besides being rich in faith the poor must also be rich in love. The Kingdom is promised to those that love God and love for Him is inseparable from love for our fellows. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats the King says "Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt.25. 34). The reason given is because of their love for Him as expressed in their love for His brethren. If this is true of those who shall inherit the earthly phase of the kingdom, how much more so with the heirs of the spiritual phase. Love is the great leveler. Where it exists there is no room for class distinction or feelings of inferiority and superiority. In the Kingdom of the future, in the glory by and by, there will be the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all men. Meantime as heirs and representatives of the kingdom we have a responsibility for demonstrating its principles here and now and this we can do only as the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which He has given to us.