posted on Sep, 17 2012 @ 05:07 PM
At the end of the first chapter of his New Testament letter, James was urging his readers to listen attentively to the Word which they would receive
from God, and to follow up the hearing of the Word with the doing of the Word.
He begins his second chapter by warning his brethren against partiality (“accepting the face”).
In the context of the letter, this warning is one of the practical applications of what is meant by “doing the Word”.
In the usual English translation, the phrase “as you hold the Faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” looks like an addition, and
theories have been based on that assumption.
But a more literal translation would be “Do not hold the Faith etc. with partialities”.
Since “hold the Faith” is the main verb of the sentence, it can hardly be set aside as a gloss.
It’s possible that the words describing the “Faith” could have been added when the different parts of the letter were brought together.
However, anyone talking about “the Faith” (in those times) is already using Christian language, so the references to Christ would not have been
out of keeping with the rest of the material.
James gives a practical example of what he means by “partiality”. He offers the case that a rich man with gorgeous apparel walks into the assembly
of the brethren, in which case he will be given a place of honour at the expense of a poor man in shabby clothing. It isn’t clear whether the rich
man is supposed to be a regular member of the community, or a casual visitor coming in to check out this weird sect of Nazarenes. Either way, this
deferential treatment is only too plausible. Obviously James has known examples of it, or he would not have brought up the subject.
James gives three reasons why this is wrong.
It is not the right way to treat the poor man.
It is not the right way to treat the rich man.
And it is not the right way to treat the law.
In the first place, it dishonours the poor man.
The brethren who do this are “making distinctions” among themselves, regarding some of their brethren as more valuable than others (which seems to
confirm that the rich man is supposed to be a fellow-member of the community).
Not only are they acting as judges, but they are judges “with evil thoughts”- that is, with unjust principles of judgement.
This is wrong, because the poor men of this world have been chosen by God as “heirs of the Kingdom”.
The promise of “the Kingdom” is central, of course, to the teaching of Jesus, and this claim is a direct paraphrase of the first Beatitude (in
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”- Luke ch6 v20
However, it’s clear from the way James expands this promise that the promise is not given to the poor as such, just because they are poor.
He says that God has chosen them to be “rich in Faith”.
In other words, it is the Faith, not the poverty, that is the real criterion for entrance into the kingdom.
This comes to much the same thing as a promise to the poor, but only because the poor were more interested in that kind of wealth.
Putting it another way, James says that God has promised the Kingdom “to those who love him” (as was said about “the crown of life” in ch1
So this amounts to a promise to “those who are poor in the world”, simply because that’s where “those who love God” are largely to be
Nevertheless, the poor brethren of the congregation must be supposed to be amongst those who are “rich in Faith”, so anything that dishonours them
is dishonouring “the heirs of the Kingdom”.
The next objection (though this is really an aside, not part of his main argument) is that rich men don’t deserve honour from the brethren, because
they “ oppress you” and “drag you into court”.
Is this about the generic mistreatment of poor people as a class by rich people as a class?
Apparently not, because he adds the explanation that the rich men “blaspheme the honourable name which was invoked over you”.
This can only mean that adherence to the name of Jesus (the name invoked in baptism) is the offence for which the brethren are being “dragged into
The social reality would be that the wealthy would be supporting the religious establishment, while the religious establishment would be wealthy,
making it natural for James to identify them as a class.
If you give honour to the rich man ,he says, you are, in effect, honouring those who persecute your Faith (even if that individual is not himself one
of the persecutors).
Then James returns to his main theme, the dishonouring of the poor man.
Those brethren who despise him are committing sin, and are “convicted by the law as transgressors”.
This charge could not have been derived from a legalistic interpretation of the Old Testament law, which offers no direct command against “showing
It’s based, instead, on a liberal interpretation of the key commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.
To emphasise the importance of this, James offers three additional comments (which might have been part of his previous teaching).
The argument of vv10-11 is the equal importance of the different commands of the law- though the examples are taken from the “human relations”
aspect of the law, not from the ritual side.
These verses, on their own, seem to be directed against those who treat murder more lightly than they treat adultery (and this charge could certainly
be laid against the kind of Jews who would stone Christians).
In the context of this letter, the indirect implication is that “Love your neighbour as yourself” is just as important as the other two.
V12 is an exhortation to be obedient to “the law of liberty”.
This rather self-contradictory expression was also used in ch1 v25.
I’m inclined to regard it as James’ way of acknowledging what Paul teaches, that the law which demands the obedience of Christians is not the same
thing as a legalistic interpretation of “the old written code”.
In the context of this letter, the implication is that this “law of liberty” embraces the commandment “You shall love your neighbour as
V13 is an exhortation on the subject of “showing mercy”.
The first part of the verse draws the same moral as the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, that God’s judgement will fall without mercy upon those
who are merciless themselves
The second half counters this warning with the promise that “mercy triumphs over judgement”- that is, the mercy which you give nullifies the
judgement which you would have received. This is a paraphrase of the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”- which only
appears in Matthew’s version (ch5 v7).
In the context of this letter, the moral is that those who dishonour the poor brother are not showing mercy, and therefore come under judgement.
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself” is, of course, the command identified by Jesus as the key principle of the law, and James (therefore)
calls it “the royal law”.
At least this is the usual translation, because the adjective BASILIKON is derived from BASILEUS, meaning “a king”.
However, the largest lexicon that I can find offers me no adjective associated with the word BASILEIA, meaning “a kingdom”.
So it seems plausible to me that if James had been looking for such an adjective, he would have settled on BASILIKON as the next best thing.
I’m inclined to believe, then, that the writer’s intention was to identify this commandment as the Kingdom’s law.
The kind of law appropriate for the followers of Jesus.