“Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment”

James 2:1-13

We began reading the Book of James before Advent and managed to get through the first chapter. I want to do a bit of review to remind us what we can expect as we continue to read through this book. 

Although there are various opinions, most scholars agree that the author of this book was James, the half-brother of Jesus. Interestingly the original pronunciation of this author’s name in Greek is Iakobos, which in Hebrew is spelled Ya’akov, which most ancient and modern translations read as, Jacob. However, both James and Jacob come from the same Greek root and can be translated into English either way. It seems English translators chose to translate it “Jacob” for the Old Testament and “James” for the New Testament. We will continue referring to the book by the title, “James.”

If we were to read the books of the New Testament in chronological order of when they were written, this book would be first, somewhere around 62 C.E. 

Information from the book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells us that after Peter moved from Jerusalem to start new churches, James became the new leader. This was the first Christian church ever and the majority of the members were messianic Jews. During the first century the Christian church experienced its share of difficulties. There was a famine that led to great poverty and there was great persecution from the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. This led to a dispersion of the Jewish Christians. James manages to put into words what was needed for new believers to hear to keep following Jesus authentically. Although he begins the book like a letter it quickly becomes a practical guide to Christian life and conduct. 

We will not find any theological information from James. Instead we will be challenged on the way we live. 

James grew up with Jesus, as His brother. It must have been difficult to be the younger brother of the Son of God? What do you do when your older sibling really does do everything perfectly? In fact, James doesn’t even believe that Jesus is the Messiah until after His resurrection. We are told in 1 Corinthians 15:7 that Jesus specifically talked with James after His resurrection. This letter that James writes demonstrates that even the deepest skeptic can see the truth and then explain things in such a way to allow others to understand more clearly. James may not have understood who his brother was but he certainly listened to what He said. James puts Jesus’ summary of the Torah into words that tell us how to live. Our main objectives should be to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. 

The book of James also follows the book of Psalms with its short wisdom speeches. James uses metaphors and one liners in order for his readers to remember. He begins in the first chapter by summarizing all the main ideas and key words used throughout the letter. Chapters 2-5 contain twelve teachings and an encouragement for perseverance in prayer. 

Today’s Scripture begins at chapter 2 where James’ first teaching focuses on favoritism vs. love. He begins with addressing the “brethren” those who believed that Jesus was the Lord of Glory. James tells them not to show partiality, basically in anything, but especially when it comes to worship. Who would be reading this letter? These were fellow Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah. They believed that Jesus was the “Lord of Glory” in other words the full manifestation of the divine presence and majesty – in Jewish terms, the shekinah. Jewish people understood that God showed no partiality, Deuteronomy 10:17,

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.

But that wasn’t what life was like for them during the time James was sharing this letter. In the ancient world people were filled with prejudice and hatred, based on the class in which you were born. Your status was dependent upon your ethnicity, nationality and religious background. You were either Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever. 

One of the biggest obstacles Jesus worked against was the walls that divided humanity. 

He came to earth to remind us that we are all God’s creation, regardless of the labels we create.  Jesus taught this and His disciples did their best to live it out. The unity and openness of the early church was strikingly different and shocked those around them in the ancient world. But the unity did not come naturally. James and the other apostles had to teach this to the early church. What happened? Humans still treat other humans in quite the same manner as they did in the first century. Today, the church needs to be reminded to never hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with partiality. 

In verses 2-4 James provides an example of the kind of partiality that would be seen in a Jewish synagogue but had no place among the Christian synagogue. In ancient Greek the word James uses here for, “assembly,” literally meant “synagogue,” the name of the meeting place for Jews. 

This designation helps to date this letter because it is the only place in the New Testament where an assembly of Christians is called a synagogue. This was mainly because the Gentiles had not been widely accepted at this point. 

James’ example begins with a rich man, recognized because of his gold ring and fancy clothes compared to a poor man. The word used here for, poor, demonstrates near to beggarliness, wearing shabby clothing. Both men walk into the room of worship and here comes the test. 

What would be your first thought? 

Hopefully you would welcome them both. However, our worldly upbringing automatically lends towards treating the man with the rings and nice clothes much better than the man wearing ragged clothing. That is what was happening in Jerusalem when James was there. 

He equates such thinking to having “evil thoughts” evident by their partial actions. If we are honest, outward appearances catch our eye and our attention. James is reminding us that God is not impressed with our rings and clothes. God is concerned with our hearts, 1 Samuel 16:7, 

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

James goes so far as to say that if we show partiality because of outward appearances it demonstrates a selfish streak in us. By favoring the rich man over the poor man we believe we can get more from the rich man. He can do things for us that the poor man can’t. 

James continues by offering a reminder of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. God actually chooses the poor in this world to be rich in faith and become heirs to His kingdom, should they choose to love Him. How quickly we forget that the rich are the ones oppressing people, dragging them into courts, concerned with only their money. Which becomes an obstacle to the kingdom of God, Matthew 19:24

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Is it because the poor of this world simply have more opportunities to trust God? Makes me wonder which kingdom is really more important. It’s not easy living day by day, poor. Especially if you can see the rich all around you. It has the potential of being very depressing. 

But when the Word of God is presented, and all one has to do is believe and receive, it is no wonder that in the history of the Gospel, more poor people turn to the Lord than rich. There are less tangible obstacles in the way. 

God doesn’t just talk the talk, He walks the walk. God actually came into poverty. God chose to enter this world, not as a king with all the amenities. Not as a prince with servants at His beckon call, but as the son of a carpenter, too poor to present more than two doves at his presentation in the temple. It’s not like God calls for partiality against the rich. If one must judge in a dispute between a rich person and a poor person they should let the law and the facts of the case decide the judgment instead of the class of the person in dispute. 

Let’s face it, we live in a society where we have been taught since birth to be independent. 

We are told we need to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and muddle through. We are told that showing partiality to the rich is a way of loving your neighbor as yourself. However, there is a fine line between being nice to the rich and showing partiality to the rich. Then what do we do with the poor man? 

James is telling us that if we show partiality, either way we are committing a sin. Jesus was asked which command was most important and His emphasis was, Matthew 22: 36-40

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two. 

Which actually came from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18, 

“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

James proceeds to expound on the seriousness of obeying all of God’s commandments. It’s not like we can compartmentalize them into categories that we like and dislike. Somehow humans have decided they can create what is called “selective obedience.” You know what I mean, it’s where we can pick and choose which commands of God should be obeyed and which we can safely disregard. We may like the command God gives against murder, so we will keep that one. But the command against adultery hits too close to home so we disregard that one. Turns out, God cares about the whole law, that means all of them. 

Based on this principle, watch out, there are not many, if any, who will be seen as holy. 

This is where James tells us that we will be judged by the law that gives freedom. It’s like he knows we will mess up. 

God put forth His commands

not as rules to see 

who could do the do’s and who couldn’t. 

He set up commands 

to keep us from hurting ourselves, 

to provide for a healthy, 

uplifting atmosphere 

where everyone is safe, loved and accepted. 

It’s not going to happen this side of heaven, but it is something in which to strive. 

This law that gives freedom, means judgment with mercy. 

The mercy we show to others, by refraining from partiality, will one day be extended to us when we are judged. James recalls what Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:2,

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”

When we offer mercy to all, regardless of their status in our society, mercy will be offered to us. James teaches us that mercy triumphs over judgment. 


Don’t you wish you could have God’s eyes to see those around you? Instead of looking at people through the lens of the world. Why do we care what people wear? 

Why do we care how big their house is or how fancy their car is? God loves everyone, created everyone and calls us to respond to others like they are one of His children. When we offer mercy, to all, regardless of their status in our society, mercy will be offered to us. 

Where does this put us today? 

James is calling us to focus on how we treat those more fortunate and how we treat those less fortunate than us. The level of mercy we give is the level of mercy that will be given to us. 

Let’s pray.