“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.”
(James 2:8-11 NIV)
James continues on with his favoritism discussion. In verse 1, he laid out the principle of avoiding favoritism, or partiality. In verses 2 – 4, James gives an illustration of favoritism in the church worship service. In verses 5-7, James lays out the disparity between showing favoritism to the wealthy, and what is returned (lawsuits by those who were shown special treatment against those who show favoritism, and dishonoring God).
In today’s passage, James shows how favoritism is sin, how it violates God’s law.
James begins by quoting Leviticus 19:18, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus also referred to this principle numerous times (Matthew 5:43, Matthew 22:37-40). To love our neighbor as ourselves is to treat others with impartiality, to treat others the same as we would want to be treated.
James makes this point to show that our “neighbors” include both the rich and the poor, those whom we would love to hang out with, and those whom we want to run the other way when we see them coming.
James says this command from Scripture is a “royal law”. What does that mean, and what is its significance? A royal law is one issued by the king, and it cannot be questioned or disputed in any way, shape, or form. And who is the king? In this case, God Himself. in Leviticus 19:18, notice how the verse ends: “I am the Lord”. In other words, “I am God”. I don’t think James can make it any clearer than that.
James says that to show partiality or favoritism is a sin (v. 9), and convicts us before God’s Law as lawbreakers, as sinners. This sounds harsh, but in reality it shows us God’s impartial character, which is a good thing.
Remember, the God whose Law we break by showing favoritism is the same God who impartially grants grace and mercy and eternal life to all who call on His name and humbly bow their knee in obedience to Him. He shows impartiality in both judgment, and in redemption.
James reminds us in verses 10 and 11 that to break one point of God’s Law is to break the whole thing. It’s all or nothing.
Why does James make such a big deal out of this? The Jewish followers of Jesus came from a works-oriented background that basically said they could “earn” their way into heaven by doing good deeds. They took God’s Law and treated it as a bunch of de-coupled commands, so they could then create their own little spiritual accounting system where they could keep track of their good deeds (where they obeyed God’s law) and their bad deeds (where they disobeyed God’s Law). They would add up all the good deeds, subtract all the bad deeds, and as long as their tally sheet showed a positive number, they felt they were guaranteed a place in heaven.
The problem, the fallacy, the error in this works-oriented approach to salvation is that it totally leaves out God and His redemption of us through His Son Jesus. In other words, if we can get to heaven on our own good works, we don’t need Jesus’ shed blood on the cross. But the Bible says just the opposite – that the only way into heaven is through Christ – we can’t earn our way in on our own merits, on our good works.
James winds up his argument by using two serious crimes, two clear violations of God’s Law – adultery and murder. Both of these were punishable by death under God’s Law. And James’ point is that God is not respecter of persons, He shows no partiality to the sin committed. And showing favoritism is equally as bad as adultery and murder in God’s eyes.
Lord, you set the perfect example of loving others impartially, both the easily lovable and the not-so-lovable. Help us to not show favoritism, but to love our neighbors as You love us – impartially, without favoritism.