James here is addressing a very real issue that began in the early days of the Church and has perpetuated throughout the generations, and continues to be very real in the Church today. The favoritism and partiality of the wealthy. Just think of how much more renown a church begins to receive should a celebrity happen to enter the doors of that church, as though their mere presence justifies the church. Even on a more local level, I’ve personally been to churches in my life where the more wealth one has attained, the more openly everyone receives them. The man in the expensive suit is greeted with open arms, whilst the poor beggar entering into God’s house for the first time is all but shunned. And yet, when we look in Scripture, favoring the rich to the poor is very contrary to Jesus’ teaching. Consider the fact that Jesus chose to be incarnate to a poor family, one who could not even afford to pay the temple fees properly in his presentation. In Leviticus, we find that after the birth, the mother shall bring a one year old lam without blemish, and a pigeon or turtledove for sin offering, to purify her. But if the woman can’t afford the lamb, then she will bring two turtledoves or two pigeons for the purification offering (Leviticus 12). And in the Gospel account, we read that Mary brought “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24), signifying that they were not a wealthy family. Thus, to show partiality to the wealthy to begin with is stand opposed to Christ. Also, bearing in mind that he “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) and had to borrow a coin to illustrate a lesson (Mark 12:15), we see throughout the life of Jesus that wealth is no indication of God’s favor. A person’s dignity and worth come from God alone, and when we deign to judge others based on their wealth, their appearance, their ethnicity; then we place ourselves in the position of being an unjust judge.
If anything, it should be the inverse of how we normally react. James reiterates this by asking, “has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom of God?” Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, declares that “it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). While God is not partial to anyone (Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:10-11), the poor are more likely to repent and renounce the world because they see the emptiness of earthly things. To the contrary, the rich tend to prize earthly things and find their joy, their contentment, their security, in them. Remembering the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus responded to him, “go, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21). And the Scriptures tell us that man “went away sad, because he was a man with great possessions.” (Matthew 19:22).
James concludes this passage with a strong warning. The “royal law” that he references, he defines as the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. When we show partiality, when we judge someone based on any of these earthly labels, we willingly violate that commandment. You become a willing transgressor of the commandments of God. And he notes that whoever sins by any transgression sins against the whole of the law, because he sins against the giver of the law. The same law that states “you shall not murder” also states that “you shall not commit adultery,” thus if you commit adultery but do not murder, you have still violated the same law because you have transgressed against the one who gave it. And while we all will accidentally sin, the Scripture is pretty clear that anyone who is walking with God will not willingly sin; thus when we judge another based on these things, we are willingly sinning against God, and therefore not walking with Him. And just as forgiving is a condition for receiving forgiveness (Matthew 6:15), so too being merciful is a condition for receiving mercy.
We have to remember that each one of us is equally valuable in the eyes of God. He doesn’t value the wealthy more than the poor, or the Greek more than the Russian or the Hebrew or the American or any other ethnicity. And, as such, each one of us is equally deserving of the love and respect that statement would dictate. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Contemplate what that statement means. Think of whom you consider to be the lowest. If I welcome with open arms a doctor, and yet shun a homeless man, I am shunning Christ. If I love a lawyer, and yet despise an addict, I am despising Christ. If I forgive the sins of a rich man and yet judge the sins of a poor man, I am judging Christ. And yet, thrice daily we pray, “Lord, forgive us in the same manner that we forgive others, judge us in the same manner that we judge others.” And yet, that statement should be enough to make us ask, in what manner am I forgiving others, in what manner am I judging others, especially the “least of these.”
God has shown mercy to us, let us in turn show mercy to others. Let us never allow these “worldly labels” to stand in the way of Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. And let us never question who is “worthy” to be our neighbor, as the lawyer who questioned Christ. But rather, let us love one another, remembering that our job is never to judge, but rather our job is simply to love and to pray for the salvation of all.
Christ is in our midst.