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James 2:8-13

"8 If you really fulfill the royal law, according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well. 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," said also, "Do not kill." If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment."

As you already know, James is writing to a people in exile. They have been forced to leave their homes and settle among strangers. As followers of Jesus, they do not find their lives to be easy and void of struggles. Instead, they find themselves facing a variety of trials and these tempt them to doubt God's faithfulness and ability to continue to bless them. James writes them this letter to remind them of who God is and how He can enable them to rejoice when they encounter these trials because they test their trust in Him. And a trust that has been tested or purified leads in the end to one being "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.(1:2-4)"

In the passage just previous to the one we are looking at today, James encourages his readers not to treat the rich that come to their church better than the poor. It is tempting when we are going through trials to treat others differently. Maybe we envy those who are wealthy and don't seem to be having any trials at all. Or, perhaps we think they may have some power to alleviate our pain so we give them better treatment. Maybe we hope to have a share in the "glory" we think they possess. Whatever the reason, James reminds them that there is only one source or Lord of glory, and that is Jesus Christ, Himself. He shows them how silly they are to honor the rich when they are the very ones who oppress them! Why should they look for glory or help from these people?

James continues this theme about not showing partiality in this section. He begins by summarizing what he was saying in the previous section with this statement: "If you really fulfill the royal law, according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well." James calls this the "royal law." It is not clear why he calls it that. Possibly he is referring to it as the "kingly law," the law belonging to the king, Jesus, or to the kingdom of God. This is the second half of what Jesus quotes when asked what is the greatest commandment. The first half is "'Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'"(Mk 12:29-30)

James encourages them to "fulfill" this law. In other words, don't just love some of your neighbors as yourself. Many in the church had been choosing only the rich neighbors to love well. Maybe they were tempted to believe that a partial observance of the law was enough to satisfy the law. James will not let them continue in this thinking. "But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." We are to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved by God. They are also objects of His love. But, we may ask, isn't the fact that some are rich and some are poor one way we see that God is showing partiality, and so we can as well? Certainly if we look around, our lives do not seem to be equally balanced with those around us. We are tempted to believe that it is right to show partiality because our circumstances, and our gifts, and talents are not the same as those around us.

But James dismisses this idea completely. To show partiality is to commit sin, it is as simple as that. James told his readers in v. 5 that God is One who "gives to all men generously and without reproach." God does not show partiality. Since this is not obvious from people's circumstances, then we cannot look at their circumstances to tell us who God is and what He is like. James reminds them of this truth about God to feed their faith in the midst of trials, so that they count on God to be who He has revealed Himself to be, rather than on our own plans and maneuverings.

The root of sin is not trusting in or counting on God to give us His life and presence, and to make us more able to receive that life. We turn and trust ourselves or others, the creature rather than the Creator. When we show partiality, we are not trusting at that moment that God is a generous giver, giving to all and without reproach. We fear He may not come through or we simply don't want what He is offering if it means having to go through these trials. The cure for this is not to just try harder to be impartial and to trust God. We need to gaze again and again and more deeply on God's heart, purposes, and work, and to have the wonder and trust drawn out of us. And as we see His steadfastness, goodness, and utter commitment to us and our perfection, we can also see more clearly the utter foolishness of counting on ourselves or others around us--like the rich "who oppress you."(2:6)

The reason that showing partiality makes you a transgressor of the law, James goes on to say, is because that to break the law in any part, is to be "guilty of all of it."(2:10) He uses the examples of committing adultery and killing to make his point that they cannot show partiality toward the law as well. They are not to believe that obeying the law is a matter of picking and choosing which to follow and which to ignore. Why is this? Because "he who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' said also, 'Do not kill.'" They were behaving as if they had a relationship with the law rather than with the lawgiver. They were not seeing that the God who is the generous giver and able to bring them to completion in Him is the One behind these laws. To transgress on any of these laws is really to transgress the one Lawgiver and the disobedience of any one of the laws comes from the same source--not counting on God (the one Lawgiver) for their lives and identities. They fail to see the goodness of God and so the goodness of each and every one of his laws given to us for our benefit, our blessing.

This next sentence is very interesting to me. "So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty." In the end, he sums up these laws as "the law of liberty." Wow! How often do we hear law and liberty put together like that? Isn't law, by definition, the hampering of our liberty? Not according to James! God's law is our liberty, our freedom to become "perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."(1:4) To count on Him for our life, to grow to know Him as the God who gives generously in the midst of whatever difficult and painful trials we go through in this fallen and twisted world, to trust Him to heal us of all our sin and the results of others' sinning against us--this is to live under the law of liberty. James encourages his readers to speak and act out of this trust in the triune God alone for the whole of our lives. We are to obey his law out of trust that since it comes from the Lord it is for our true liberty.

To count on God is to receive His mercy, to count on His grace to heal us and destroy the sin that entangles us. James concludes this section by stating, "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment."(2:13) You cannot show mercy without first receiving mercy from God. If you receive God's mercy you will certainly want all others to receive the same--showing no partiality! The one who lives refusing God's mercy will be the one who judges others without mercy. That is, he will judge with the intent of having his judgment be the final word which brings nothing but final condemnation with no hope of redemption. When we judge others without mercy, we are at that moment not receiving, not living on the great mercy of God whose judgment is meant to bring us to repentance and redemption. Here James speaks too, of God's judgment upon "one who has shown no mercy." That one will experience judgment from God without mercy as well. Why? If we refuse to show mercy in one's judgment of another, then that person has no grasp at all of his or her own dependence on God's mercy and really has placed themselves in a position of refusing God's mercy as well. You cannot receive God's mercy and not want to extend it to others. Their need is the same as yours.

But James does not end there. In the end, he says, it is not judgment that will triumph, but "mercy triumphs over judgment." It is God's mercy that will be triumphant. Even our false judgments cannot stop the fact that in God's judgment the greater end is mercy. God's judgment serves his mercy. We can hand over to Him all of our petty judgments and condemnations of others or ourselves because we have counted on and been ultimately betrayed by them rather than trusted in God alone. He is and will continue to be the God who gives to all generously, without reproaching. When we find ourselves treating others with partiality we can turn back to the only one who can give each and every one of us true liberty! A liberty to receive every good thing (especially His mercy) from God and to pass it on to each and every one who crosses our path.

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