The word for today is “partiality.” Favoritism is the way of the world. Human society is so ordered that some are more advantaged, favored, and honored than others. However, the Gospel opposes and reverses this preferential treatment of the privileged. In our reading of James 2:1-13, we read, “My Brethren, do not hold the faith our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with partiality” (vs. 10).
The Greek word translated as “partiality” means the “respect of persons” (Strong’s #4372, 2160). But the word has the connotation that this regard for others is based on outer appearance, not on inner character. We hear this undertone in the flattery that the Herodians used in their attempt to trick Jesus: “You do not care about anyone, for you do not regard the person of men (Matthew 22:18). The word “person” here refers to the “face” that people present to others (Strong’s #4383, 2160). We can say it is their outer “façade.”
“My Brethren” Speaks of Oneness in Christ
The apostle sets out to criticize the partiality that judges others by the pretense of wealth. To start, he addresses his readers as “my brethren” (vs. 1). This address emphasizes that all alike are one in the one faith in Jesus Christ. There is no higher or lower in the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christ. With this in mind, the apostle warns against favoritism within the family of faith.
The contrast between the fawning treatment toward the rich man and the disparaging attitude toward the poor man is a metaphor for the social discrimination inherent in human affairs. Society gives honor and deference to the rich, powerful, and famous who already have more than enough of esteem. Yet it neglects and dishonors the poor and powerless who have need for attention and respect.
Favoritism as Superficial Judgement
As our reading suggests, favoritism is based on the superficial judgement of others. The apostle even calls this bias toward the rich as “evil thoughts” (vs. 5). How rich and poor are treated differently at a banquet may seem like a trivial matter. Yet consider what sins the different treatments of rich and poor can elicit. For the poor, favoritism may stir up jealously, envy, resentment, coveting, scheming, and the like. For the rich preferential treatment can evoke pride, greed, avarice, arrogance, and worry about loss and obsession with gain.
Different Approaches to Rich and Poor
We can find different approaches to the matter of rich and poor in the New Testament. For example, St. Paul advises that the rich not be stuck-up or trust in their riches (1 Timothy 6:17). Rather they should be “rich in good works,” generous, and eager to share (1 Timothy 6: 18). However, James says that the wealthy deserve no special respect for their “oppress you, drag you into court” and blaspheme your good name (vs. 6-7). The apostle even says, “Come now, you rich, weep, and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (vs. 5:1). The rich have lived in “pleasure and luxury yet their wealth is corroded. They have cheated their workers and “condemned the just” (vs. 5:4-6). On the other hand, the apostle writes that it is the poor that God has chosen to be “rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom” (vs. 5).
Transcending the Division Between Rich and Poor
Then again, the apostle offers some wisdom that transcends the dynamics of rich and poor. He advises that if you follow the “royal law,” and “love your neighbor as yourself you do well” (vs. 2:8). In contrast to this the second of the great commandments, favoritism is sin. The unspoken point is made clear when we emphasize “as yourself.” This phrase means that we do not consider ourselves higher or lower than our neighbor. Self and neighbor are on the same level and we love both in the same way.
When Paul speaks of the Body of Christ, he makes this point even clearer. He states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This central teaching takes us back to the address of this passage, “brethren” (vs. 1). If we are all brothers and sisters, we have no need to judge one another based on our “facades,” whether rich or poor. But we can truly be accepted for who we are in Christ.
Riches and poverty are often relative to attitude not merely of circumstances. Some who are rich consider themselves poor and some who are poor consider themselves as rich. The difference in outlook is the degree of contentment. In this vein, Paul writes in 1 Timothy: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing in this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:6-9). The word here translated as “contentment” (Strong’s #842, 47) refers the perception of sufficiency. To be content, we must have a sense of “enough.” Paul writes that the desire for riches leads to temptations and frivolous lusts that finally end in destruction (vs. 6). That perilous desire for wealth is a craving that never has enough.
These observations lead to the thought that we will feel rich or poor depending on our feeling of having enough. Thus, if we are to measure ourselves and others at all, it should not be on wealth or poverty but on contentment.