Summary: You will only find true freedom in the way you conduct your relationships with others when you abide by God's standards for your realtionships.
What motivates your relationships with the people you meet throughout your lifetime? By what standards do you measure your relationships with others? What standards does God want for your relationships with other people? The world would have you believe that your relationships with others will determine your success and happiness. And because the world operates in this way the standard by which the world would have you view your relationships with others is based upon what people can do to further your own personal gain and pleasure. When you operate according to the world's standard you have the right to choose to become involved in only those relationships that will benefit you the most: Why waste your time and money on people who can't do anything for you when there are so many others who can help you achieve the happiness and fulfillment you're entitled to in this life?
The world would have you believe that your relationships with other people are motivated by what they can do to make your life complete. What standard does God have for our relationships with other people? Do you measure all your relationships by God's standards, even those relationships that don't benefit you in any way? What motivates your relationships with the many, many people you meet throughout your lifetime?
In his letter, James gives us God's standard for our relationships with other people. James is writing this letter to Jewish Christians living throughout the Roman Empire. These people were Jews by birth who upon hearing the gospel message of Jesus Christ became converts to Christianity. Because they were believers in Christ, these people were being driven from their homeland by the emperor of Rome. Eventually, the constant persecution they suffered led to an attitude of discouragement. They began to have doubts about their faith in Christ, which was evident in the way they conducted their lives. These people claimed to be believers in Christ, but their actions denied that claim; even though they called themselves Christians, they conducted their lives as though they had never heard of Jesus Christ.
One of the mistakes these people were making was in their relationships with one another. James points out the mistake they were making, and in so doing James gives us God's standard for our relationships with other people.
James begins this passage with a command in verse 1. I want to call your attention to the reference James makes about the Lord Jesus Christ because James mentions this name only twice in the entire letter. James assumed that the readers knew the basics of the Christian faith and that they understood the role that Jesus Christ had in their lives. But don't take this reference to the Lord Jesus Christ in verse 1 lightly. Understand that James is not throwing in this name here and there to make his letter sound spiritual. James has a purpose for mentioning the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is essential to James' command not to show favoritism. The point James wanted his readers to understand and the point that you are to understand is your faith in Christ influences your relationships with others. If you have faith in Jesus Christ, then that faith will be reflected in the way you conduct all of your relationships, not just those relationships that benefit you in some way.
James follows his command not to show favoritism with an illustration beginning in verse 2. Why does James present this setting? Why does James compare the reception given to a rich man with the treatment given to a poor man? In order to understand James' illustration, we need to understand the Jewish culture at the time this letter was written. Keep in mind that the original readers of this letter were Jews by birth, therefore, they probably saw the world around them from a Jewish perspective.
In the Jewish culture of that day it was perfectly acceptable to gain social, political, and religious status by catering to the needs of those people who could help you attain important positions in life, and the people who were best able to help you get ahead in the world were the wealthy. The poor were despised: there wasn't anything they could do for you and we see that the person showing favoritism in the illustration responded in the way we would expect a Jew of that day to respond: he sought out the rich man and showed him the good seat while neglecting the poor man. From a cultural viewpoint, that was acceptable. From a cultural viewpoint the person's motives were pure: What was wrong with gaining some status in the world? He had a family to feed. He had chariot payments to make. Why shouldn't he be looking out for his own needs?