“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin.” James 2:8-9
The second chapter of James begins with a command for Christians to show no partiality to others. James gives an illustration of a rich man and poor man entering a Christian gathering. The rich man is shown favoritism, given special attention and offered prime seating, while the poor man is told to sit aside. James tells us that making such a distinction is dishonorable to God and to the poor whom God often chooses for His kingdom.
James goes on to show us that at the heart of such favoritism is disobedience to the royal law of Christ. That law, given to us by our King Jesus, is the second great commandment – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we show a partiality that withholds love to certain others, we are “committing sin” (James 2:9). In the illustration of the rich man and poor man, one neighbor was shown the love of the royal law while another was not. The sin of partiality chooses which neighbor to love as yourself and which one to not love in that way.
There is a connection here to the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). A Jewish lawyer, understanding the command to love your neighbor as yourself, sought to justify himself by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” This is no innocent question. The lawyer is seeking to limit the extent of the law’s demand and consequently limit his own responsibility. It is as if he is asking Jesus, “Whom do I not have to love? Which people would be an exception to this commandment?” If Jesus would just narrow down who his neighbor really is, then he could love those people alone. The lawyer wanted to be able to show favoritism by picking and choosing whom to love.
Jesus answered this man with the story of the good Samaritan. In so doing, He turned the question back on the lawyer by asking him which of the three men in the story proved to be a neighbor to the one who had been beaten and left half dead. The lawyer properly answered that the true neighbor was the Samaritan who showed the man mercy. Jesus replied to the lawyer, “You go, and do likewise.”
Jesus was showing the lawyer that the problem was not in defining who his neighbor was; the problem was what kind of neighbor he was showing himself to be. Christ’s law of love should not be limited by its object – it should not depend upon who is receiving the love. Jesus’ point was that no one should evaluate a person to see if they fit the definition of “neighbor.” Jesus makes it clear that a person who truly loves his neighbor will show mercy, without partiality, when anybody is in need.
That brings us back to James, where we see that the bottom line here is showing mercy. The reason we should fulfill the royal law of love for others without favoritism is because we will be “judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13). Our impartial mercy to others demonstrates our obedience to Christ’s law, which we have been freed to follow. And this mercy triumphs over judgment. As Douglas Moo explains, “Our merciful attitudes and actions will count as evidence of the presence of Christ within us. And it is on the basis of this union with the one who perfectly fulfilled the law for us that we can have confidence of vindication at the judgment” (“James,” PNTC, p. 118).
As Christians, let us not display favoritism in showing or withholding love and mercy to others. Let us be merciful to others as God has been merciful to us. For Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).