The passage at hand comes from the sermon from James, the half-brother of Jesus. The passage’s context is in James’ discussion on hearing and doing the word and controlling what we say (the tongue) (1:19-27). James enters chapter 2 with a discussion on favoritism. James’ thesis is that the faith of Christ levels the field (vs. 1). He argues that showing favoritism to those who have more socio-economic power is counter to doing the words Jesus spoke (vs. 1b the second of two times James mentions Christ by name). Hearers and readers of James’ sermon may have remembered what wisdom literature had to say on the subject (Prov. 24:23), or the words of Jesus (Matt. 19:30; 20:16), or how Jesus treated those who were social outcasts (the woman with bleeding issues in Mark 14:24-25).
James calls out those who judge by outside adornments (vs. 2-3) as those who judge with evil thoughts (vs. 4). A key word is favoritism or partiality (προσωπολημψία) is in its literal sense “‘receiving the face.’ It is first used in the New Testament as a literal rendering of the Old Testament Hebrew language for partiality. To ‘receive the face’ is to make judgments and distinctions based on external considerations, such as physical appearance, social status or race” (Moo, 91). This activity, according to James, is counter to the great law of loving neighbor as self (vs. 8-9, Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; and Mark 12:30-31). James reasons that, when one is dependent on the law, breaking one means you have broken them all (vs. 10-11). However, he encourages the reader to embrace the law of freedom (vs. 12), which is the gospel of Jesus. James finishes the passage with an appeal to mercy over Judgement (vs. 13). As Burdick observes, “The commands’ Speak and act’ are stronger in the Greek text than in the English… The present tense in both verbs calls for continuing action” (Burdick, 180). Those who call Jesus as Lord are to speak and act upon his word continuously stressed, which was strongly argued in the previous chapter.
Wright observes that at the “end of the previous chapter by not letting the world leave its dirty smudge on you” (Wright, 14). He goes on to state that God wants his church to reflect his “generous, universal love in how it behaves” (Ibid). James is warning against showing favoritism to those of higher socio-economic status because they will eventually “likely be oppressors, and even persecutors” (Ibid). What is most important is the Jesus is the one who is the head of the church, and all who come to them are equally saved and equally loved. This fact stands in Jewish prophetic history and was applicable then as it is now (Jobes, 165).
Burdick, D. (1981). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12). (F. Gaebelein, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Jobes, K. (2011). Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles (Kindle ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Moo, D. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVasity Press.
Wright, T. (2011). Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John, and Judah. Louisville, KY: SPCK.