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I remember my son asking, "Why do you let him do that when you don't allow me to do this?" It is one of the more humbling experiences of parenthood to be caught in an inconsistent treatment of one's children. They are so quick to notice the injustice! And many adults are still wounded by the feeling that they were (or still are) on the short end of their parents' favoritism. Our sensitivity to partiality is an evidence of our desire for justice to be real. It is no small matter to us.
Nor is it a small matter to God. Through Moses he charged the people of Israel to believe and to remember his divine purity on this issue: "For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes" (Deut 10:17). That is why the oppressed could trust him, for it follows immediately that he "defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing" (Deut 10:18).
The persistent, inescapable principle of being related to God as his people is that his character and ways are binding upon us as well. We are to be holy as he is holy. So God equally charged the people of Israel to care for the fatherless and the widow and the alien and to appoint judges who would "judge the people fairly" and "not pervert justice . . . show partiality . . . [or] accept a bribe" (Deut 16:18-19). Partiality is an issue for James because God's righteousness is the issue for James. God does not show partiality; therefore we must not show partiality.
Eusebius's account of James's martyrdom gives us a vivid example of impartiality (1890:125-128). James was held in such high regard as one who "does not respect persons" that when the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were alarmed by the numbers who were believing in Jesus as the Christ, they appealed to James to make a speech to calm the crowd! When they presented James to the crowd, the speech he gave was hardly what they wanted, for he declared Jesus to be the Christ in such strong terms that many became believers then. According to the account in Eusebius, it was this incident that led to James's death. The authorities were so angered by his speech that they cast him to the ground and stoned him to death—while he prayed for God to forgive them.
Thus James's reputation as "the Just" is quite appropriate as he follows a very familiar line of Old Testament thought about justice. The chapter division in our text should not be allowed to disguise the continuity from 1:27 to 2:1. James says Don't show favoritism because that would be an instance of "being polluted by the world." Impartiality is binding on us because of the same standard of justice that compels us to "look after orphans and widows in their distress." If James were speaking this as a public address, we would expect a slow, deliberate and emphatic pronunciation of each word: My brothers! Don't . . . show . . . favoritism! Do not compromise purity, because God himself is pure.
James's term for "favoritism" (prosopolempsia) is not used in either secular Greek literature or the Septuagint. The problem was, however, apparently a common concern in the New Testament church. With the use of James's identical term or a derivative, God's impartiality is asserted in 1 Peter 1:17, Acts 10:34, Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 3:25 and Romans 2:11. We can see something of the reason for this concern by what James makes of the issue.
We will not grasp accurately the thrust of James's message if we fail to see that the continuing, underlying issue on his mind is to encourage the integrity of faith in the lives of his readers. James is approaching that central passage of his letter in which the most frequent occurrences of the term faith (pistis) will be concentrated. The following outline of his use of the term exposes the flow of his message about faith.
1:3. The goal: to treat trials as testings of faith in order to develop perseverance and to become mature and complete.
1:6. An illustration: that those needing wisdom in their trials should ask God, but ask in faith.
2:1. An application of genuine faith: that we are not to hold faith in Christ with favoritism in our treatment of people.
2:5. The matter of true value: to be rich in faith, not rich in money.
2:14-26. The theological unity: faith and deeds (with the term faith used eleven times in this section).
5:15. The concluding emphasis: that we are to pray in faith.
Seeing this, we can now follow James's teaching on favoritism toward the rich in 2:1-13 in terms of two arguments related to faith. First, favoritism contradicts faith (2:1-7). Second, favoritism breaks the law that people of faith follow (2:8-13).