10. Why Prejudice Is Incompatible with the Christian Faith Pt. 2 (James 2:8-13)Related Media
But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators. For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
James 2:8-13 (NET)
Why should believers not practice prejudice?
Throughout James’ letter, he has been giving tests of true faith. James’ letter is immensely practical because he believed that true faith changes people’s lives. It changes the way they speak (1:26); it makes them different from the evil world system and culture (1:27). True salvation inclines our hearts to help those in need (1:27), and in James 2:1-13, James’ point is that true salvation should turn us away from prejudice.
Prejudice and partiality were normal in the ancient world. There was great ethnocentrism and genderism. In fact, Jewish men would commonly wake up in the morning and say, “Thank you, Lord, I am a male and not a female. Thank you I am a Jew and not a Gentile!” They prided themselves both in their ethnicity and their male gender. Also, there was great classism in the ancient world. The poor were shunned, and the wealthy were honored. Marriage often didn’t happen between different classes. However, for James, prejudice, including showing partiality and favoritism to certain groups, was incompatible with faith in Jesus.
In James 2:2-3, James addressed prejudice which had been happening amongst the Jewish Christians by illustration: A rich man with nice clothes entered a congregation, and immediately, the Jewish Christians gave him a special seat. However, when a poor man entered with dirty clothes, they told him to sit on the floor or by their feet. James rebuked them by saying they had harbored evil thoughts and become unjust judges (v. 4)—people who judge based on outward appearances alone.
In James 2:5, he said prejudice does not fit with God’s choice of the poor to be rich in faith. Throughout history, the church has primarily come from the poorer classes, including slaves. Even Christ came from a poor family. He worked with his hands as a carpenter, and when he started his ministry, he was supported by the donations of others, including women (Lk 8:3). James says to dishonor poor people is to mistreat those who generally have had great faith.
In addition, James said that when believers honor the rich, they are siding with those who commonly mistreat believers (2:6-7). In those days, it was the rich who often dragged Christians to court and blasphemed Christ’s name. Likewise, today, it is often wealthy, liberal groups who persecute Christians through litigation for their beliefs about marriage or abortion. By honoring the rich and dishonoring the poor, believers were dishonoring those who commonly had faith in Christ and honoring those who commonly were antagonistic towards God and believers.
In James 2:8-13, James continues to argue that showing prejudice is incompatible with true faith. In this section, we’ll consider several more reasons that Christians should not practice prejudice.
Big Question: In what ways does James 2:8-13 argue that true faith is incompatible with practicing prejudice?
Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Breaks God’s Law of Loving Our Neighbors
But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators.
When the NET says, “if you fulfill the royal law,” the NIV and ESV say if you “really” fulfill or keep the law. It seems these believers were defending their honoring of the rich by saying, “We are just fulfilling God’s law—to love our neighbor as ourselves!” However, their problem was not so much the fact they loved the rich, it was their showing prejudice to the poor. James says by doing that they were breaking God’s royal law.
Interpretation Question: Why is loving our neighbor as ourselves called the royal law?
First of all, it is royal because it was given by God, the ultimate king, in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18). In addition, Christ, the Son of God, reaffirmed this law for believers. He taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:30-31). In fact, Christ taught that believers would be known by displaying supernatural love. In John 13:35, he said, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.”
Interpretation Question: What does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves?
From a negative standpoint, it means if we don’t want to be treated poorly because of the amount of money we make, the job we have, our color, or nationality, we should not treat others that way. If we don’t like people talking critically about us behind our back, lying about us, abusing us physically or emotionally, then we shouldn’t do that to others. However, the royal law goes much further than that. Positively, it means that if we enjoy when others help us out when we are struggling emotionally, socially, spiritually, or financially, we should do the same to others. This is how God called the Jews to love others, and Christ taught the same thing in the new covenant to believers.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), Christ explained more about this command by declaring who our neighbor is. In the story, a man was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Two religious professionals walked by the man on the road and did nothing to help him. Then, a Samaritan stopped, treated his wounds, took him to an inn, paid for him to stay there and also for other bills that would be incurred. Essentially, Christ said to love our neighbor means to help anybody who is in need—the single mom, the refugee, the person struggling with depression or finances, the kid struggling with math. We are called to love them all, as we would ourselves.
Not Commanded to Love Ourselves
With that said, it’s important to understand something about the royal law. It is not two laws, as some would teach—love yourself and love others (or love yourself so you can love others). Scripture never teaches us to love ourselves. Before the fall, the greatest commands were naturally fulfilled by Adam and Eve. They were innately inclined, before developing a sin nature, to love God with all their heart and to love their neighbor as themselves. They were perfectly made in the image of God. However, when sin came into the world, they hid from God and one another. Instead of loving God and others wholeheartedly, each person would love themselves more than God or others. This new propensity to love oneself would cause humanity to break all God’s laws. Scripture teaches that all God’s laws are fulfilled by love. Romans 13:9-10 says:
For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
If we love God, we won’t worship idols or blaspheme his name by our words. If we love others, we won’t steal from them, covet their spouse, gossip about them, or murder them. Therefore, to not love God and others is to sin and break God’s commands.
Contrary to the psychological approach to ministering to people, which often says, “You just need to love yourself more,” Scripture says, we already love ourselves too much! Therefore, we are called to humble ourselves (1 Pet 5:6), deny ourselves and take up our cross daily (Lk 9:23), and even hate our own life (Lk 14:26-27)—in the sense of loving Christ more. The royal command is really to start loving others like we already love ourselves. In describing the end times and how rebellious people would become, Paul said:
But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God. They will maintain the outward appearance of religion but will have repudiated its power. So avoid people like these.
2 Timothy 3:1-5
In describing the treacherous times of the last days, the first problem with people is that they would be “lovers of themselves.” This seems to be the reason for all the other sins. This caused them to be boastful, arrogant, blaspheme God, disobey parents, slander others, oppose what is good, love pleasure instead of God. It appears to have been given first because it is the root of all the other evils.
Though secular wisdom might say to a person who is depressed and suicidal, “You just need to love yourself more,” the problem really is that they love themselves too much. When people commit suicide, they demonstrate that they care more about themselves than their parents, friends, strangers, the world, or even God. What they really need during those desperate moments is to love God and others more, which would deliver them from being consumed with their world and the problems in it.
This is part of the reason loving our neighbor as ourselves is the royal command! Breaking it, along with not loving God, is the chief reason for all the evil happening in the world, including prejudice. When a believer shows prejudice against someone, it stems from their love for themselves. Self-love makes them proud about their beauty, race, ethnicity, wealth, family background, and nation and causes them to look down upon and judge others. Prejudice, racism, classism, and chauvinism come from loving ourselves. Therefore, when these Jewish Christians dishonored the poor, they were breaking God’s law.
To love our neighbor, we must ask ourselves, “Who around me has a need and how can I meet it? Is there somebody who is depressed, somebody who is being bullied or mistreated, someone who needs financial or manual help?” Those are the ones we should especially love and honor. When we demonstrate prejudice, we break God’s royal command to love our neighbor. Are we loving others as ourselves?
Application Question: Do you agree that self-love is the root of most, if not all, evil? Why or why not? In what ways does God’s commandment to love fulfill all commands? Who do you feel God is calling you to, especially, demonstrate love to in this current season?
Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Breaks the Whole of God’s Law
But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators. For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law.
It seems that not only were these Jews excusing their prejudice by claiming it was loving, but also, they were excusing it because, to them, it seemed like a minor sin. To them, prejudice, such as honoring the rich and dishonoring the poor, was nothing in comparison to adultery or murder. In the Mosaic law, the consequence for those sins was death. So they thought to themselves, it’s not a big deal to show a little prejudice and a little favoritism. In fact, Jews tended to view God’s commands as separate units. If they failed a law and practiced another, one could still be considered just before God as long as they were more righteous than sinful. That is why they commonly believed one could go to heaven by practicing the law (cf. Matt 19:16-20, Lk 10:25-28). However, James crushed that view by saying the law is a single unit. If you break one law, you have broken the whole law. He viewed the law like a chain or a mirror. If a chain is broken in one spot, the chain is broken. Likewise, whether a mirror is broken by a tiny pebble (a minor sin) or a boulder (a large sin), the mirror is still broken. It’s the same with God’s law; committing one sin makes us violators of the whole law.
It was in this sense that the Old Testament law was given to prepare the Jews for their Savior. Galatians 3:24 says, “Thus the law had become our guardian [or tutor] until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith.” Because God knew they could not keep the 600 and something OT laws, he provided provisions for when they failed. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the nations. This was meant to teach them that they could never be righteous enough to be accepted by God and avoid his wrath—they needed a substitute. These yearly lambs were always meant to point them to Christ—the lamb which would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). They were just symbols of the person who would one day pay the penalty for all sins—past, present, and future.
The common Jewish belief that one could earn merit with God by their works is just like every other works-based religion, including what’s seen in Catholicism. However, the Bible teaches that everybody has broken God’s law and therefore are under God’s judgment. Romans 6:23 says, “For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Apart from faith in Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, there is no salvation from the penalty of our sins (cf. John 3:16, Eph 2:8-9).
Now certainly, James is not saying that all sins are equal in consequence. Committing the act of adultery is worse than committing adultery in one’s mind and has a greater consequence. However, all sin is equal in that it breaks God’s law and separates us from God.
Application Question: What are some applications we can take from the fact that one sin breaks all of God’s law?
- It reminds us that nobody can be saved by works. God’s demand is perfection (Heb 12:14)—perfect obedience to God’s whole law. If we break it, we are violators under judgment, and God’s judgment for one sin is death (Rom 6:23). Nobody can be saved through works (Eph 2:8-9)—including baptism, prayer, helping the poor, or taking the Lord’s Supper.
- It reminds us that we are not better than others because we have never committed greater sins like murder or adultery. We all are condemned by the law and, therefore, equal in that we all need a savior.
- It reminds us that we cannot pick and choose laws to obey. Prejudice, cursing, illegal downloading, lying, and any other sin we might consider minor is not minor to God. They all deserve death, and Christ was crucified because of them.
- It reminds us that we all need God’s mercy, which comes through accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior, as he died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead (Rom 10:9-10).
Again, James’ point is that prejudice is not a minor infraction; it breaks all of God’s law. It creates inequity and injustice amongst those whom God created in his image to glorify him.
Like these Jewish Christians, we must ask ourselves if we are minimizing prejudice in our hearts—looking down on the poor, less educated, less attractive, or people from other races and honoring people with wealth, education, beauty, and from certain ethnicities? If we don’t recognize how evil all sin is, including prejudice, we will allow it to linger in our lives and never repent of breaking God’s laws. To break one part of God’s law is to break it all.
Application Question: Are all sins equal? If so, in what way? If not, why not? Why is it so easy for believers to accept and adopt prejudice and partiality in comparison to other sins?
Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because God Will Judge Us for It
Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
James says that believers will be judged for their words (2:12), actions (2:12), and attitudes (2:13). In 2:13, when James describes being judged for not showing mercy, mercy is first an attitude before an action. Christ taught the same thing about judgment. He said that we will be judged for every idle word spoken (Matt 12:36) and also that our works will be judged—meriting either reward or loss of reward. In the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30), three people received talents from their master. The two who made interest were commended by the master and received rewards; the one who did nothing with his talent was rebuked and had his talent taken away. Likewise, though believers will not be judged for their sins because they were paid for on the cross, Scripture teaches that believers will be judged for their works. Second Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil.” Matthew 5:19 says, “So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ.”
James’ words about their speech, behavior, and attitudes being judged would have challenged these Jewish Christians. Saying to the poor man “stand” or “sit on the floor” and to the rich man to “sit here in a good place” (2:3) are seemingly insignificant words and actions which have eternal consequences. This is true for us as well.
Interpretation Question: In what ways will believers be judged for their words, actions, and attitudes?
When James says, “For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment,” there seems to be two aspects to it (2:13).
- There is a temporal aspect to this judgment: Believers who are merciful or unmerciful will receive both reciprocally on this earth. It is a basic spiritual principle called “sowing and reaping.” Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows.” If we are merciful in practice by caring for those who have needs, forgiving those who have sinned against us, we will receive mercy back. When we need help, God will meet our needs through various ways. Psalm 41:1 says, “How blessed is the one who treats the poor properly! When trouble comes, the Lord delivers him.” Proverbs 11:25 (NIV) says “whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” However, if we are unmerciful, critical of others, unforgiving, stingy, or prejudiced, then those things will happen to us as well. It’s the principle of sowing and reaping at work.
- There is an eternal aspect to this judgment: Since James has been dealing with tests of true faith, he is also saying our demonstrating mercy or not demonstrating it will prove whether we are truly born again, whether we have truly received God’s mercy. Remember, that is the context of the section right before James 2:1-13. In James 1:26-27, he said:
If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Someone who doesn’t restrain their tongue but is harsh and judgmental in how they treat others, may prove that they are not truly born again. In addition, a person who does not care for those in need and keeps himself from the stains of this world (including prejudice), may prove a lack of true faith.
This is the same thing Christ taught in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46). In the last days, Christ will separate people into sheep and goats based on whether they showed mercy to the least of these (caring for those in prison, the hungry, or those without clothes). The sheep who were merciful went into the kingdom, and the goats who were unmerciful went into eternal damnation. It is not that people are saved through their works, but works demonstrate true faith, which is the major theme of the book of James.
Are we merciful, especially, when considering people who are different from us—different race, socio-economic status, culture, and educational background? Or are we unmerciful and even prejudiced? God will judge us for how we speak and act and also for our attitude. We will receive reciprocally from our actions both in this life and the life to come.
Application Question: Does God’s judgment (both temporal and eternal) motivate you? Why or why not? How is God challenging you to show more mercy to others?
Why is practicing prejudice incompatible with our faith? In James 2:8-13, he gives us three reasons:
- Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Breaks God’s Law of Loving Our Neighbors
- Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Breaks the Whole of God’s Law
- Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because God Will Judge Us for It
- Pray for forgiveness for not loving our neighbor as ourselves, including practicing prejudice and not caring for those in need and suffering.
- Pray for grace to love those around us—friends, family, church members, co-workers, and those struggling financially, emotionally, and physically.
- Pray these for our churches.
Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown
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