The Royal Law

James 2:1-13

It was the spring of 1846 that 15 year old Jim showed up at Worthy Taylor’s farm asking for work.  Now, Worthy didn’t know anything about the young man, but he needed a farm hand and hired him to help around the farm cutting wood, feeding the cows, looking after the other animals, and generally making himself useful.  He ate in the kitchen and slept in the hayloft.

Before the summer was over, Jim had fallen in love with Taylor’s daughter, but when Jim asked to marry her, the farmer flatly refused – “You have no money, no name, no prospects – you’ll never amount to anything.”  And with that Jim gathered his belongings in an old carpetbag and disappeared.

35 years passed and Taylor began to pull down his old barn to make room for a new one.  On one of the rafters above the hayloft, where Jim had slept so many years before, he discovered that Jim had carved his full name – James A. Garfield – who in the year 1881 was the president of the United States of America.

Who would have thought?  Who would have guessed Peter could become that bold proclaimer of the gospel after his cowardly denial?  Who would have thought that Paul could become such a powerful defender of the faith after a life spent persecuting Christians?  Who would have predicted that John would become the apostle of love after wearing the nickname, “Son of Thunder?”

There are really two issues being addressed by James.  One is your relationship with people, the other is your relationship with the Law.  And, not surprisingly, the two overlap in a very profound way.  And, in fact, these two themes will play an integral part in much of the rest of the book.  James is keenly tuned into how we as Christians relate to other people. 

James knows what a powerful temptation it is to play favorites in church – to do things and treat certain people differently because of how it will benefit the church.  And he jumps right in with an object lesson – a rich man and a poor man come to church one morning. 

The rich man enters the church wearing the finest linen toga – tailored and embroidered with gold thread.  He’s wearing gold rings and an amulet of rubies and diamonds.  No doubt which side of the tracks he lives on.  In fact, you recognize him as a prominent citizen and city councilman.  You shake his hand warmly and tell him how honored the church is to have him visit.  You make sure he gets a bulletin and you walk him down the center aisle and notice the admiring looks people are giving him. You introduce him to the preacher and make sure you let the preacher know he’s a very important person one to be treated with great respect.  He takes his seat and you walk away thinking, “I hope we make a good impression. We could sure use more members like him.”

A few minutes later another man comes in the door and he is wearing a ragged tunic that is threadbare and dirty.  You can tell by the odor he hasn’t bathed in a while and then you recognize him as one of the beggars down on the street corner.  You ask him if you can help him, half expecting him to ask for a handout.  He says, “I’d like to worship with you this morning.”  And you nod and wince, as you think, this could be embarrassing.  But you say, “Of course, let me help you find a seat.”  And you look around and off in the far corner where there isn’t anybody else who will be offended by his odor, you point and say, I think you’ll be comfortable over there.”  And as he walks away you head for the bathroom to wash your hands, and hope there aren’t too many people who complain.

And James says, when you do that, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

Unfortunately, the language James uses tells us this isn’t really hypothetical.  The grammar doesn’t say, “Don’t start doing this hypothetical sin.”  It says, “Stop doing what you are already involved in.”

And then James challenges their whole system of values that brought about that kind of prejudice and partiality – vss. 5-7 “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

You see, the temptation is to think that rich people and people of importance and people with power are going to make your church more powerful, more important, and more prestigious.  We cater to those who have something to offer, because we want the church to benefit from what they bring with them.

Now, James’ accusations are somewhat limited by the cultural situation which he addressed.  The church of the first century was primarily made up of the impoverished, outcasts, slaves – the lower classes.  It was the rich and the powerful who persecuted them and abused them. 

Today, the distinction between wealthy and poor has become blurred.  The social chasm that existed then, isn’t as pronounced today. The truth is that wealth does not necessarily make a person less spiritual, nor does poverty make a person more spiritual.  But it is true that wealth tends to immunize you from feeling a dependency on God, and as Paul warns in so many ways, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9).

But they were just like us – even though the rich exploited them, they wanted to be just like them, they wanted to rub elbows with them, they wanted the power that wealth brought them.  The church has always struggled with catering to wealth and power.  We make assumptions about the things wealth can do for the church.  In the world, wealth spells success – but we have seen how deceptive that is – God’s definition of success has never included the size of the budget.  And the ironic thing is – and I have known many generous wealthy people – but in general the more money a person has, the more difficulty they have letting go of it – while those who have less really do understand the importance of giving sacrificially.

And James’ point is just as true today, that partiality and favoritism have no place in the church.  No one should be catered to because they have something to offer the church, and no one should be treated with less respect because they have nothing to offer.

Perhaps the practical lesson out of this exhortation is that every person who comes among us should be treated with honor and respect.  Instead of giving one a seat of honor and treating the other with disregard, give them both seats of honor – treat both as honored guests – not because of what either one can do for you or how they can benefit the church – but because God welcomes every person as his favorite child.  Isn’t that what vs. 8 is saying?  “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” 

James appeals to the Royal Law – the Royal Law is not just a new updated version of the Law of Moses – he’s not trading one set of rules for another.  It’s not a new legalism that once again sucks the life out of those who fail to live up to it.  It is the Royal Law because it supersedes and encompasses all other law.  If we would live by this law, we would need no other law.  And this Royal Law sounds very familiar, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  It was the heart of the Sermon on the Mount: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It was the punch line behind the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who was the neighbor to the man…? The one who had mercy on him… Go and do likewise.”  It follows on the heels of the greatest command: “Love the Lord your God… and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And the reason favoritism is so wrong is because it flies directly away from loving our neighbor as our self.   But we rationalize it and say, “It’s not that big a deal – why should I apologize for looking out for the best interests of the church?  If we don’t have some rich people, who’s going to pay for everything around here?  So I was overly polite to someone who’s wealthy – who’s to say that I’ve played favorites?  After all, it’s not like I’ve murdered anybody.”

And James nails them (and us) to the wall –  Vss. 9-11 “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, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” 

James defines the essence of law – God doesn’t grade on the curve – you can’t justify yourself by comparing your little sin with someone else’s big sin.  While we may look at different sins as relatively big or little, all sin is ultimately a violation of God’s will for us – it’s not legal, it’s personal.  When we sin, we are saying to God, “I know what’s best for my life, not you.”

We are all lawbreakers, and all in need of grace.  And that’s why James brings us back to this Royal Law.  If we judge ourselves by comparing ourselves with how much worse others are, or if we play favorites based on how much more one person is worth than another – in other words, if our standard is a legal standard, our evaluation will always be faulty and we will always be judged guilty.

And so he says in vss. 12-13, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!”

The Royal Law gives freedom – it is not legal, it is relational.  It brings us face to face with people and says, “Love others as you love yourself.”  If you approach every situation asking, “How would I want to be treated,” and perhaps even more telling, “How would Jesus treat this person,” you will always act with respect, and compassion and mercy.  You will never treat one person worse because they aren’t as well off, because they don’t look, or dress, or smell like you, and you won’t treat them with disrespect, because the Royal Law holds you to a higher standard, and causes you to reflect, not an impersonal legal standard, but a personal relationship.  You are showing mercy – you are acting with love, because God first showed mercy to you – God first reached out in love to you.  How could you act in any other way?

Illustration – The first time

I saw him in the church building for the first time on a Wednesday.  He was in his mid-70’s, with thinning silver hair and a neat brown suit.  Many times I had invited him to come to church, I know others had often invited him, but each time he would respectfully decline.  A couple of years earlier I had asked him, “Have you ever been to a church service in your life?”  He hesitated, then with a bitter smile, he told me of a childhood experience over 60 years earlier.  He was one of a dozen kids in a large impoverished family. 

When he was about 10, some neighbors had invited him to come to church with them.  He loved the songs and the Bible stories.  His family had never been religious and he had never actually heard the Bible read.  After class was over, the teacher took him aside and said, “Son, please don’t come to church again dressed as you are now.  We want to look our best when we come to church.”  He hung his head and looked down at his hand-me-down shirt, his ragged, unpatched overalls, and his bare feet, and said, “No, ma’am, I won’t ever.”

“And I never did,” he said, abruptly ending the conversation.

Now, I’m sure there were other factors that hardened him over the years, but this experience played a significant part in his bitterness.  Yet, as I saw him at church for the first time that Wednesday, neatly dressed in a suit, lying in his casket, I thought of the little boy of long ago, and I could almost hear him say, “No, ma’am, I won’t ever.”

Every person is God’s favorite child and every child of God has a place at his table.  And if they have a place at God’s table, they should have a place at ours.