Summary: Some things are inconsistent with faith in Jesus Christ. Playing favorites in church is sin, plain and simple.
My brothers, show no favoritism as you hold your faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
If a man wearing gold rings and fine clothes enters your assembly and also a poor man wearing ragged clothing enters, if you look at the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place!” but to the poor man you say, “Stand over there.” Or, “Sit here by my footstool.” Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? My beloved brothers, has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? Yet you dishonor the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and who drag you to court? Do they not blaspheme the good name by which you have been called?
If you obey the royal law according to the scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself” then you do well. But if you show favoritism you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of all. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery” also said, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but you do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law.
So speak and so act as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. He will be judged without mercy who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
This has all the marks and sounds of someone who has experienced the things he writes about. James writes this letter as someone who has been poor. James is the brother of Jesus and they grew up poor. The Bible tells us this of Jesus, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”
And Isaiah 53 tells us:
2He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Christians are called to believe and follow, and imitate Jesus Christ. Why is this the way of salvation? Why is giving up everything and following Jesus part of the gospel call? Why couldn’t it be a big bank account instead of a cross as the thing we were called to bear? Why does the blessing of the kingdom start with being poor in spirit?
James grew up in the home of Jesus. He saw what happened to his older brother along the way. He knew Jesus personally and while the Bible tells us in John 7 that his own brothers did not believe in him, James became a follower after Jesus was raised and took a position of leadership in the church early on.
This letter was probably written not too long after the scattering of the early Christians that we have recorded in Acts 8. What happened there was that a great persecution broke out and the Jews, partly spurred on by Saul of Tarsus, began ravaging and seeking to destroy the church. Many of the wealthiest of the Jews of the early church were among the Sadducees and scribes. Some of these rich and powerful Jews actually may have attended some of the assemblies of the early Christians, and no doubt some were converted to Christ. But many others were very oppressive toward the Church and in their unbelief spoke blasphemous words about Jesus and made life for the poorest Christians especially difficult.
What we hear in this letter are rebukes, instructions and encouragements for the church in its attitude toward the poor and the wealthy. James comes down pretty hard on the wealthy (usually unbelievers) throughout this letter, but nowhere harder than in chapter 5. Look at that with me.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.