Commentary on James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
James 2:1-17 invites believers to examine their relationships with one another, particularly along class lines, their understanding of the role of the Torah in the Christian life, and their willingness to put their faith into action. The text raises as least four important questions that preachers might pursue further.
The first of these concerns partiality. In Greek the word prosopolempsia literally means “taking face.” It derives from the words prosopon — face, and lambano — a verb which means “I take.” Here, James alludes to Leviticus 19:15, a scriptural injunction against partiality or “taking face”: “Do not be partial (lemepse prosopon) toward the destitute nor marvel at the face of the ruler.” (Leviticus 19:15b).
James makes his point using a hypothetical example: the entrance into the community gathering of a rich, gold-ringed man in shiny clothes and someone who is destitute in filthy clothes. If people of faith treat them differently, the former being given a seat of honor and the latter told to stand off to one side or to sit by (or more literally under) a footstool, James castigates this discrimination as evil (James 2:4).
For James, such behavior violates the scriptures, especially Leviticus 19: 18b, which he calls the “royal law” (James 2:8) and which Jesus famously held up as second only to the Shema as the most important scripture (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). James 2, invites reflection on what it means for us to love our neighbors, especially those of a lower economic class from us. James’ challenge applies further to invite examination of how we treat all classes of persons with less social power, such as refugees and immigrants, children, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people.
Second, James invites believers to consider questions of wealth, poverty, and justice. Particularly, James reveals the role of the wealthy in persecuting his audience, verbally, and judicially (James 2:6b-7). By contrast, James considers the poor as inheritors of the promised kingdom of God (2: 5-6a), possibly an allusion to the first beatitude in Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20. James’ assertion prompts self-examination, especially for those of us in the wealthy global north. What is our role in oppressing the poor, and to what kind of repentance might God be calling us?
Third, James 2 raises questions about the place and role of the Law of Moses within the Christian life. This argument takes various forms throughout the New Testament, from Paul’s argument that the Law served as our tutor until Jesus came (Galatians 3:24-25) to Matthew’s argument that not one letter stroke from the law will disappear until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). James takes Matthew’s part, especially in the optional verses for this lection. His conversation on law begins in verse 10, where he argues that whoever does not keep the whole law is a transgressor of it, an argument akin to that found in Galatians 3:10 and Deuteronomy 27:26.
However, unlike for Paul, James does not use this as an argument against following acts of the Law. To the contrary, he encourages his community to adhere to the Law, which he considers a Law of freedom (James 2:12). This Law does judge those who are merciless, but responds mercifully toward the merciful (James 2:13), an assertion that once again echoes the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7). This section of James may elicit meditations on the nature and purpose of the Law of Moses for Christians today. What of it is liberating, and how do we enact it mercifully?
The last four verses of today’s lection eclipse the rest of the letter of James for their familiarity and notoriety. They call James’ audience to an engaged and enacted faith, one that attends to the physical needs of fellow community members. At the same time, they seem to challenge the assertion in Ephesians and in the undisputed Pauline letters that Christians receive salvation through God’s grace rather than through any human action (Ephesians 2:8, compare with Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16).
The tension, although real, tends to be overblown. James admits that God saves the community of faith, giving birth to it through the word (James 1:18). Thus, James does not state that works alone bring salvation, rather than faithfulness. Rather, as he explains in 2:18b, one’s actions make one’s faithfulness apparent: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”
This final section of today’s lection challenges us to consider by what actions we make our faith visible, to think through how we put our faithful words into action. Indeed, faith in action encapsulates this entire chapter of James, including 2:18-26, which the lectionary omits. James challenges us to consider how we will live out our faith together, in ways that reflect God’s mercy and benefit the marginalized.