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This passage about breaking the law does not include the word faith, but the central violation of the law on James's mind is still the sin of favoritism (2:9). Therefore this passage is still in reference to the command with which he began in 2:1, where favoritism was declared to be in conflict with faith.
What is the law to which James refers in this passage? One possibility is that he means only that one commandment he quotes in 2:8 from Leviticus 19:18. It would be consistent with the whole passage to see this as James's central focus: favoritism is a violation of this Levitical command. However, questions are raised about this conclusion when we notice that James uses the more inclusive term nomos for "law" rather than the more specific entole, which could be translated "commandment." Furthermore, his earlier reference to the law in 1:25 was broader, not specifying this one command; and that reference to the law that gives freedom is repeated now in this passage (2:12). It would appear that James is making a primary reference to the command Love your neighbor as yourself, but that he has in mind a larger body of law as well.
Therefore a second possibility is that James is referring to the body of Old Testament Mosaic laws, in what amounts to an anti-Pauline requirement of lawkeeping. I have argued in the introduction (section on "The Law") that this understanding should be rejected. James consistently focuses on moral law, with no trace of controversy over circumcision or any aspect of the ceremonial law. And James's unusual phrases royal law and law that gives freedom indicate that he has something distinctive in mind.
A third alternative therefore needs to be defined from the content of James's own writing. The first clue is in the striking term royal law. The designation that the law is found in Scripture reveals James's awareness that he is quoting the Old Testament, but he adds the adjective royal, which is normally used in recognition of a king's ownership—as in a king's country, a king's robe or a king's official (Jn 4:46, 49; Acts 12:20, 21). The reference James the Christian would most likely be making would be to Christ as king. Then the phrase law that gives freedom (2:12), especially augmented as "the perfect law" (1:25), conveys the sense that James is describing a special law with new significance, beyond that law with which he spent most of his life in Judaism. There is no suggestion that this law contradicts the Old Testament moral law; in fact, James affirms the Old Testament moral commandments in 2:11. But he believes there is a law to lead his readers to the goal he has set before them: being "mature and complete, not lacking anything" (1:4), being "a kind of firstfruits" (1:18) and living "the righteous life that God desires" (1:20).
What would that law be? This is answered by the third clue, which is our finding that James's thought is thoroughly saturated with the teachings of Jesus. These teachings are clearly on James's mind throughout the letter, and they would be the natural referent of his terms royal and perfect law that gives freedom. The teachings of Jesus have become for James this new law, not repudiating but rather fulfilling the Old Testament law, not replacing the Old Testament law but rather claiming Christ's authorship of it as his own royal law. That makes it legitimate to conclude that, even with the command from Leviticus 19:18, James is probably remembering Jesus' own quotation of the command, as in Mark 12:31.
James begins with the Old Testament command Love your neighbor as yourself because it is the specific command being violated by favoritism, and because Jesus used it to summarize the Old Testament teaching regarding our treatment of each other. The law for people of faith is the law of love, taught in the Old Testament and now delivered personally by Christ as his royal law for his followers. Favoritism is sin because it violates Christ's law of love.
James would have us look carefully at the content of this law. Loving your neighbor as yourself requires an openness to friendship with any neighbor—regardless of that neighbor's wealth, position, status, influence, race, appearance, attractiveness, dress, abilities or personality. Every Christian operates in some social group—a school, a neighborhood, a workplace. And most social groups have their social misfits—the ones who are looked down upon, ostracized or neglected. The royal law absolutely prohibits the Christian from joining in the favoritism. The follower of the royal law will reach out to any neighbor.
Loving your neighbor as yourself means treating others' concerns as important as your own. Therefore followers of this law will seek the common good rather than personal good. Imagine a church committee meeting in which one person presents an idea of what should be done about a particular issue. A second person disagrees. The first person, because she is a follower of the royal law, responds not by arguing her own idea but by helping the group fully hear and understand the other person's proposal. Love brings a desire to protect each other's interests.
Loving our neighbors as ourselves means treating others' needs as needs we have in common as neighbors—and so caring for others' needs in unison. Americans during World War II tasted that sense of neighborhood. My wife's father was in Europe for the first two years of her childhood. There were long stretches of those two years during which my mother-in-law had no word from her husband and did not know anything of his safety. When she shares memories of those difficult days, people sometimes ask her, "How did you stand it?" Her answer: "Everyone had someone over there in the war, so we were in it together." That is the help we give when we love each other as ourselves, and there should be that strong sense within churches that keep the royal law. When one person is in trouble, "we're in it together."
The point of emphasizing the whole law is that the whole law is to be kept. The status of the royal law, then, is that it is indispensable. If we are believers in Christ (that is, "ones who have faith in Christ," as stated in 2:1), then we must follow the teachings of Christ. We must bring our relationships under the lordship of Christ. That is why, in 2:8-11, James elaborates with repetition on the fact that favoritism makes one a lawbreaker. The message is, Don't think you are keeping the law of Christ while you are practicing favoritism. It is as much a contradiction as if you claimed you were keeping the law just because you were not committing adultery even though you were practicing murder. James's language is stark and emphatic in 2:9: If you show favoritism, you sin.
James's first intention in 2:12-13 is to make a summary application, as indicated by his return to the more general terms speak and act. These terms are reminders that the issue of favoritism is but one application of the principles of speaking and acting by what the word of God says, as expounded in 1:19-27. "Do what [the word] says" (1:22).
But James's second intention is to warn his readers of this result: they will be judged by the law. He has already warned against discriminating against the poor and so becoming evil judges (2:4). Now he reminds them of the danger that they will in turn be so judged, if that is the standard they adopt. This seems a clear application of Jesus' words in Matthew 7:1-2. Judgment requires meeting a standard, living up to a law. Christians are covered by the blood of Christ and so will receive mercy instead of condemnation in the final judgment. Nevertheless, Scripture speaks of the divine judgment as a reality that should deter all people, most of all Christians, from sin. For all people, including Christians, will give an accounting of what they have done. Specifically, we will give an accounting of whether we have lived by this royal law, Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is a third intention to see: James is directing his readers toward freedom. The emphasis on freedom here would have to make an impression on the readers by its contrast to their exploitation and oppression by the rich (2:6). Believers are not to act as if they will be judged according to a law that condones oppression—which is what favoritism toward the rich would imply. Rather, they are to act as ones who are obligated to live up to a standard that frees from oppression. Our relationships are corrupted by the sin in our character that leads us to approach people with fear, calculation, judgmentalism and manipulation for our self-interest. These really are burdens upon our relationships. Christ would free us from the sin of materialism, so that we can be freed from economic favoritism. He would free us from the sin of racism, so that we can be freed from ethnic favoritism. The royal law of loving one's neighbor as oneself brings freedom to forgive the neighbor's wrongs, freedom to ask forgiveness for our own wrongs, freedom to accept differences among us and freedom to open ourselves to others. It is freedom from the selfishness that is at the heart of favoritism.
When James prohibits favoritism, he would not replace it with a legalistic consistency, as if righteousness consisted merely of giving everyone identical treatment. What James has in mind as the opposite of favoritism is mercy. Mercy is the essence of the royal law. Instead of favoring the rich, believers in Christ are to have mercy on the poor. So mercy is the trait we must learn if we are to be rid of favoritism, and mercy triumphs as a far better way over the judgmentalism described in 2:4.
If we are going to be motivated to practice this, it is critical that we see why mercy is essential. In the divine judgment, we are freed from condemnation by God's show of mercy. Far from treating us with contempt, God has mercifully covered our sin and made us his own honored people. Now in relationships with others, we absolutely must practice mercy ourselves, or else we show that we have not accepted God's mercy. The principle of mercy in Matthew 6:14-15 and the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 provide the forceful teaching from Jesus. James is only applying that teaching of his Lord. Mercy must and will replace discrimination as the way of life for people of faith.
This again verifies that James's underlying concern is for a life of genuine faith. Looking back over the entire argument in 2:1-13, we find James to be saying: My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (and as believers therefore in a salvation by the mercy of God), do not be unmerciful to others. If you practice favoritism instead of merciful love, you are denying the very principle of our faith—which is belief in God's mercy through Christ. If you deny your faith by such actions, then your faith is not genuine (in fact, it is dead, to use the term James will employ in 2:14-26). And if you have no genuine faith, then you can expect only judgment without mercy from God.
It has been by now repeatedly evident that James's emphasis on the law is thoroughly Christian. His moral earnestness is rooted in redemption. For the law he prescribes is emphatically Christ's law. And that law requires mercy in us, because we who are believers in Christ look in faith for mercy from God.
The application of James's message should be made explicit by the church today, certainly in regard to the materialism that results in economic favoritism, as described at the end of the commentary on 2:1-7. However, as James presents the issue in more general terms in 2:8-13, the applications broaden. The racism that results in ethnic bigotry is an obvious area for application today. But there are others. Favoritism is the sin of extending special favor to some people for self-serving purposes, and we have a multitude of ways to be so "polluted by the world" (1:27).
We experience poor substitutes for Christian friendship all week, and it is hard to change our patterns when we gather with other believers at church. We learn to treat relationships as merely opportunities to get business done; then we come to church and waste our sabbath rest getting church business done. Instead of making contact with fellow Christians in love and then experiencing worship as celebration, we take care of self-serving agendas.
Professionalism pollutes our friendships. We work in contexts that honor self-motivation, self-reliance, achievement and success. That context pulls us with tremendous force. We learn to impress others with our success, and we become attuned to the marks of success in others. We learn to size people up by the way they speak, the way they dress, the way they act.
We also subject ourselves to our standards of favoritism and so inject our fears and insecurities into our relationships. We abhor exposure of our failures and weaknesses; we are internally driven to compete and outdo.
All of this is favoritism in modern dress. The result: self-serving relationships, the heart of favoritism. It pollutes the church. It keeps the church from being a fellowship of love in which our lives are refreshed and healed by the taste of God's love in each other and by a wonderful celebration of God's love in real worship.
James has shown us the solution to our problem of self-serving relationships; it is to bring our relationships under the government of the royal law. Douglas Webster captures the biblical vision excellently in his chapter on this passage. "The church should be a competition-free zone" where "instead of courting one another's favor we rejoice in God's favor" (1991:69-70). "Instead of maneuvering for the best possible advantage, we give ourselves to one another for the sake of Christ" (1991:75).