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The Sin of Favoritism
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Here, James begins a section where he speaks against the sin of favoritism. It is wrong to show favoritism based on external circumstances, whether it is favoritism to the rich or to the poor: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15). James here focusses on the more prevalent case: showing favoritism to someone because of their riches. It is natural for the world to honor the rich and famous, because riches and fame are things for which those of the world strive. As Christians, we should have different values. Therefore, we should esteem individuals for different reasons than the world does. As Paul says, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (II Cor. 5:16).
We should examine ourselves concerning favoritism. Do we favor the worldly wealthy? Are our heroes the great athletes, the rich entrepreneurs, the glamorous actors? Are we not surely guilty of showing favoritism to the worldly wealthy, even at church? Unfortunately, upon examination, I think that most of will indeed find ourselves guilty in this regard. We greet the rich and upstanding, while ignoring the lowly and humble. We admire worldly wealth on the outside, ignoring the presence of God on the inside. We often allow fame to excuse immorality, being more tolerant of the actions of the rich. The excellent of the world should not gain our respect and honor, but the excellent in Christ. Our only consideration of outward adornment should be based on if one is clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
Indeed, Christ Himself is our example in this. He never showed special treatment based on external circumstances, but rather dealt with people based on the condition of their hearts. Even the Pharisees recognized this. At one point, they said to Him: “We know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are” (Matt. 22:16).
In the passage we are studying, James begins by addressing his readers as “My brothers”, in order to underscore his point: All believers, whether rich or poor, are our brothers. James goes on to categorize those to whom his exhortation is directed as “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 1). Love toward all, without favoritism, is an evidence and a fruit of true faith in Jesus Christ. Throughout this epistle, James “grounds Christian practice on Christian faith” [JFB]. Indeed, the main theme of this epistle is that true faith will result in behavior that reflects that faith. So here, James relates that favoritism is not consistent with being a “believer”.
Moreover, by telling “believers” not to show favoritism, he is reminding us that our standing in relation to God is derived from our faith, not our external circumstances. In the things of God, all have an equal advantage. Therefore, just as God does not show favoritism, but allows any and all to come to Him, we are not to show favoritism.
To explain what he means by favoritism, James describes a hypothetical situation, where a rich man and a poor man come into a church meeting. The rich man is “wearing a gold ring and fine clothes” (vs. 2). Many people don their jewelry and fine clothes at church, almost to invite special attention. There is a defect with churches that have “dress codes” (even though unwritten), in that those with humble means may feel intimidated to attend amongst the finery. A church should have an atmosphere such that all feel welcome, even the poorest, most wretched sinner.
The rich man is told, “Here’s a good seat for you” (vs. 3). This was a common practice in the synagogue, to reserve the best seats for the most wealthy. Nowadays, seats in the churches are normally not reserved in such a way; however, are not the elders and deacons of many churches chosen among the parishioners who are the most well-off? Do not the more wealthy receive more dinner invitations from fellow believers? Is not the better dressed newcomer given the better welcome at the church door? Unfortunately, favoritism is alive and well in the modern church.
In James’s hypothetical, the poor man was told “You stand there” (so as to be ready to serve) or to “Sit on the floor by my feet” (so as to be at a lowly position). In both cases, the result is to exalt the hypothetical speaker above the poor man. Thus, James asks rhetorically: “Have you not discriminated among yourselves?”. Discrimination is a damaging sin to the cause of Christendom because of its poor testimony to the world.
Those who show favoritism have “become judges with evil thoughts”. In this, they doubly err: They not only are serving in a role to which they were not called (by being a judge), but they also are carrying out that role poorly (by showing partiality). To show favoritism is a sin, as cited above: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15). Thus, it is an “evil thought” that shows respect based on worldly riches.