We have been exploring the fruit of the Spirit known as goodness. The book of James, perhaps more than any other New Testament letter, is written to give us very specific instructions for living out the goodness of God, urging us to both be good and do good as God is good, to exercise charity and purity, inside and out, with all integrity as God does.
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 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.
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
In today’s text, James is explicitly warning us against the sin of discrimination, or misjudging one another. He uses as his example something that is sadly true in any social setting, but most disturbingly among believers, and that is our overwhelming human tendency to show favor to the rich and casually write-off the poor. We are quick to judge a book by its cover, and assume that someone who is dressed nicely and drives a nice car is somehow inherently worth more, and that someone who is dressed poorly and perhaps has an odor about them is inherently worth less.
Such prejudice based on outward appearances is absolutely wrong and sinful, James says. Jesus himself said that the poor are blessed, and leveled a series of woes against those who are rich in this age.
Of course, we have to be careful that we don’t misjudge by going too far the other way by automatically equating poverty with righteousness, and riches with sinfulness. After all, we know of many poor people who love the world more than God, and many rich people who have dedicated every worldly possession they have to the Lord’s service. When we recall Abraham and Job, who were among the wealthiest people of their day, and whom the Bible singles out as righteous for their faith, it is hard to make the case that simply having wealth makes someone evil. It is not whether we have possessions or not that makes us holy or evil, but what we do with them, and to whom they are surrendered. A wealthy person submitted to Christ can do much good. A poor person committed to selfish pursuits can do much harm. The Bible teaches us very clearly that having money is not the problem; it is the LOVE of money that leads us to perdition.
“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Still, we cannot help but notice that, on the whole, God seems to give more grace to the poor, the widow, and the orphan, while setting a much higher bar for those who have been blessed with worldly wealth. Jesus offers a scathing warning to the rich in Luke 12:48:
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
As an aside, the modern buzzword for this sliding scale of expectations is “equity,” which essentially attempts to address the problem that equal treatment is not always fair. For example, if we had twin children – one able-bodied and one who was paralyzed from the waist down – and we wanted to give each one a bicycle on their birthday, it would be equal to give them both the same road bike, but it would hardly be fair, would it? In order to be fair, we might give the able bodied child a regular road bike, but the child who had no use of their legs a recumbent bike that could be pedaled by their arms. That is a simplified example, but that is this basic concept of equity. When it is practiced thoughtfully – which isn’t at all easy to get right 100% of the time – it is only right and fair. We can plainly see that God invented the idea, because the scriptures remind us that He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), and He expects more from those who are rich than he does from those who are poor (again, Luke 12:48).
But James is not only addressing discrimination against the poor here in chapter 2. That was just the example he used to make a bigger point. He goes one to explain that judging one another, especially in view of the mercy we have been shown as believers in Jesus Christ, is hands down, a sin.
And I think that is an important point to call out here, especially in this day and age when we are told we should not judge one another because – according to the world – there is “no such thing as sin” anymore, and people are urged do whatever wicked thing they want, that “anything goes”, and calling any behavior “immoral” is to be immediately condemned as “judgy”.
Quite the contrary, James goes out of his way to explain that sin is not only real, but we are all guilty of it. He makes the argument that breaking one part of God’s law means we have shattered the whole thing, and therefore, James implies, we are all lawbreakers, all sinners, and all deserving of judgment.
There is a staggering difference between the position of the world, which says, “Don’t judge others because they haven’t done anything wrong,” and James, who says “Don’t judge others because, even though we have all done wrong, God has shown us mercy.”
On the one hand, the world is arrogant and self-approving. On the other hand, James tells us to be humble and admit we are all sinners saved by grace. On the one hand, the world falsely claims that we cannot judge one another because it blindly claims we are all somehow innocent, while on the other hand James warns us that we are in no position to judge one another, not at all because we are innocent, but because we were all decidedly guilty, yet God chose to show us mercy through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His only begotten son.
Who is right? The word of the world that insists it is absolutely perfect and needs no forgiveness? Or the word of God that insists we are not perfect, but we are mercifully forgiven by a loving God? I suppose you can figure that out for yourself. If you can honestly make the case that you are perfect, innocent, and without fault in any way, then the world will gladly welcome you to their liar’s ball. But, on the other hand, if we have the courage to admit that we are not perfect, yet we are loved by God in spite of our sins, and offered mercy when we actually deserve judgment, the kingdom of God welcomes us with open arms.
It is on the basis of the mercy we have received that James urges us to not judge one another, and to extend mercy to one another in the same way that God has extended mercy to us. And in that way, surely goodness IS mercy.
Now that I’ve covered the overall arc of today’s passage, I’d like to share four specific reasons James gives that we are in no position to judge, but instead ought to always err on the side of mercy with one another.
First we are too arrogant to judge.
The sad truth is that we tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Any time we put ourselves up higher than others, we have no option but to look down on them. The truth of the matter is that, because none of us is God, none of us is qualified to judge anyone else. It is simply not our place to judge one another. Instead we ought to humble ourselves before God and one another and admit we have no right to judge or discriminate against any fellow human being.
Second, we are too ignorant to judge.
No matter how well you know someone, you really never know their whole story. It is so easy to entertain one-sided arguments against another person and rush to judgment, without taking the time it takes to hear both sides. When we don’t know the whole story, it is easy to rush to judgment and to condemn someone. And the truth is, none of us knows the whole story. Misinformation and disinformation are responsible for the wrongful assassination of many a character, but incomplete information beats them all. We would be wise to recognize that the truth we see is never the whole truth, and tat our ignorance makes us unfit to judge another person.
Third, we are too inconsistent to judge.
When James makes his case that breaking one part of the law is breaking the whole law, he is really getting at the way we downplay some sins while we overblow others. He is arguing that we have no right to judge the law because we are so inconsistent in our application of it. We call one thing blessed when it is really cursed, and we call another thing cursed when it is really blessed. In other words, James is saying that we create a breach of integrity when we treat some sins as less offensive than others. True, different sins have varying degrees of consequence – shoplifting has less of a societal impact than murder, for example. But with regard to our integrity, telling a fib is just as destructive as committing adultery. Goodness is a glass, and one chipped corner ruins the whole thing. We are simply too inconsistent in our application of the truth to serve as its judge.
Fourth, we are too unmerciful to judge.
Finally, the most significant reason James warns us not to put ourselves in a place of judgment against others is the fact that we are simply not merciful enough. To judge rightly, we would need to be as merciful and forgiving of others as God is with us. And I’m sorry, but we just aren’t there. Perhaps no better story illustrates this than that of the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8.
You remember the story: Jesus said to those who had gathered to exercise perhaps righteous, but clearly merciless judgment against the woman. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
With that simple phrase Jesus turns the tables on those who would set themselves up to judge someone else – even though they might have been technically justified, they were spiritually without any right to discriminate, because they, too, were guilty of breaking the law, yet each one had been shown mercy by God. And one by one, the stones fell from their hands to the ground, and they walked away, no longer able to judge, but challenged by Jesus to show mercy instead.
And so may the stones fall from our hands today. May we leave our unrighteous indignation at the altar this morning, trading in the gavel we’ve stolen from God’s bench for an open hand of mercy.
James calls us to move beyond the error of being arrogant, unreliable, unmerciful judges (v1-3) to the appropriate position of humbly accepting the good judgment of God, who is merciful mercy, according to the unwaveringly fair and good word of truth.
To dis-criminate is literally to mis-judge, to judge unfairly, and to waver without integrity. We are all guilty of this, but God never misjudges us. He looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. And, thanks be to God through His indescribable gift in Christ Jesus, He chooses mercy over condemnation.
The key principle of today’s scripture is that we are not to judge but to show mercy. And that has at least three applications worth considering. I’ve posted them in your bulletin. They go something like this:
Inward application: How have I been ignorant of the mercy of God toward me?
Upward application: How can I better show my appreciation for God’s mercy?
Outward application: Who have I judged without mercy, like a book by its cover? How can I make it right with them?
We must become agents of mercy with one another. None of us is perfect, all of us are loved.
Thanks be to God, our merciful judge and defender.