Keeping the royal law

Discrimination is contrary to God's attitude toward the poor

James, Part 12

James 2 addresses the subject of prejudice. People in James’s day, like people today, created social hierarchies based upon wealth and power. The rich were catered to and given preferential treatment everywhere, including the church. James makes it clear that favoritism has no place among apprentices of Jesus and offers three reasons:

  • Discrimination is contrary to God’s attitude toward the poor (2:5–6a).

  • Discrimination makes no sense (2:6b–7).

  • Discrimination violates “the royal law” (2:8–13).

We looked at the first two reasons in part 11. Today we’ll explore the third: discrimination doesn’t just contradict God’s regard for the poor–it contradicts God’s very nature. Let’s read James 2:8–11:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 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 the one who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

The royal law was decreed by the King in Matthew 22:37–40. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus says loving God and loving others are two sides of the same coin. One of his disciples later summarized his teaching: “Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8). “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:12).

John and James echo the teachings of Jesus. Love is accepting people and loving them just as they are, sins and all. Not just people who look like us and talk like us and share our values, but all people. All races, all ethnicities, all religious preferences, all sexual orientations, all everything. Even our enemies.

According to Jesus, love is the non-negotiable identifying mark of every Christian who is walking the talk–but are we clear about what it means to love? Take a moment before reading further to reflect on your own definition of the word. What do you mean when you say, “I love…”? When Jesus told us to love our enemies, what did he mean?

A good working definition of the word comes from Thomas Aquinas, who described love as “willing the good of another.” James says we “will the good” of God when we “keep” (obey) the royal law of love that encompasses all the commandments. So we keep the royal law vertically by living in his truth, but how do we keep the law horizontally? How do we “will the good” of the people around us?

Perhaps the place to start is with what we won’t do if we love others: we won’t judge them. Instead, we will be salt and light (helpful influences) and pray for them. We will follow Jesus’s instruction and let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16).

Beyond that, there are many ways love will respond. Everything depends on the context. The apostle Paul said it this way: “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). Paul says exhibiting Christ’s love will be perceived differently by different people:

  • To the broken and hurting, love will be compassionate.

  • To the confused, love will be patient.

  • To the curious, love will bring knowledge.

  • To the skeptic, love will be gentle.

  • To the proud, love will be a mystery.

  • To those who oppose Christ, love will be a stumbling block.

When we take a closer look at Scripture, we discover that love is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Jude, brother of James and half-brother of Jesus, wrote to people being inundated by false teachers and suggested a three-pronged approach: “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and rescue them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear–hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (vv. 22-23). Three groups are under consideration:

  • Jude first mentions doubters–those whose faith is wavering because they are listening to false teachers. They are to be shown mercy. Able teachers are to explain the Word and answer their questions.

  • The second group has moved beyond the doubting stage. They are beginning to agree with the false teachers. Jude says they need to be “snatched” from the fire. This kind of love sometimes takes the form of confrontation or intervention. The false teaching must be exposed for what it is. If I saw a loved one running toward a cliff, I would shout a warning. If I saw a baby putting her finger in a light socket, I would snatch her away. If I had a friend being indoctrinated into a cult, I would say and do whatever I could to point him to the truth.

  • The third group has embraced the false teaching and practices it. They are also to be shown mercy, but mercy “mixed with fear” (mercy that is extremely cautious) because if we are not careful, one of two things might happen: we might be negatively influenced by the teaching, or our love might be interpreted as condoning the false teaching. Jude’s counsel to show mercy while hating “even the garment stained by the flesh” is the source of the saying, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” In other words, we must express our love in a way that conveys good will but does not condone the sin the person has embraced.

That can be particularly challenging when we are talking about sins that have been embraced and endorsed by most of our friends and neighbors. James uses a universal sin to illustrate his point: the sin of discrimination. We practice it when we show deference to the wealthy and avoid down-and-outers. James says when we pay attention to the rich and powerful and ignore the poor and helpless, we violate the most sacred law in the kingdom. Hence the stern warning in verse 12: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of liberty,” James says. “For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

When we discriminate, we are judging and condemning. James is blunt about the consequences of being merciless, but he ends on a positive note by proclaiming, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Bible scholars disagree about whose mercy is being spoken of here (human or divine), but given the context, it appears James is talking about human mercy. Yet the two are intimately related, because when we show mercy toward others, we reflect the nature of the God who indwells us. This, in turn, affirms our identity as his child and gives us confidence. The more we work alongside God, the more encouraged we become about who we are and Whose we are.

Next: What faith is not.

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