I preached through James 2:1-13 this past Sunday and was struck in my preparation with the repeated use of the theme of the courtroom and the law by James. 4 times, the theme is used and they show the progression of argument that James makes.
James2:3 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?
Here is James’ basic ethical instruction- have no favourites (see also 2:1). When we discriminate amongst people we “become judges with evil thoughts”. It is not judging per se that is the issue – we all need to make judgement on all sorts of things all the time – but judgement with evil thoughts that is wrong. The evil thought, of course, is that one man is more deserving of special treatment than another. All of that, of course, is a denial of the grace we have been shown. Besides, there is only one truly deserving of honour; Jesus. And so James deliberately calls him “the glorious Lord Jesus Christ”. He is glorious, but everyone else is a recipient of His grace if they are to be accorded honour.
If we are, indeed, judges with evil thoughts then the great irony is that we will fit in well to the next courtroom that James points us to:
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?
It’s a brilliant rhetorical flourish. When we side with the rich we end up siding with the very ones who drag us into court. This was, by all accounts, a real problem for the early church. Not just that, the language of the rich exploiting the poor is resonant with a repeated Old Testament theme…
Lev. 19:15 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
Amos 5:12 For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
James’ charge becomes, essentially, equivalent to that of the Prophets – the people of God are not treating the poor amongst them correctly.
And so we move to another courtroom.
James 2:8 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.
Now we enter the royal courtroom of God Himself and hear His law read to us. By God’s holy standards, already alluded to and now seen clearly, we can not stand. As James will go on to argue, it is useless saying “but I get so many other areas right, why does this one matter?” The royal law does not wipe away the detail of the Torah but, instead, shows it’s full effect. All the various laws in the OT that regulate our interaction can be summarised in this one pithy but deeply searching demand – Love your neighbour as yourself.
So why are we so busy judging one another with evil thoughts (v4), acting like those who take us unfairly to court (v6) when we ourselves are condemned law breakers?
And so to the last of the four courtrooms.
James 2:12 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.
There is a better way and a better law in a better courtroom. There is a “law that gives freedom”. James has already shown us this law:
James 1:25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
that law has been previously written about this way:
1:18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth … 21 …humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
This perfect law is the saving life-giving word to which the royal law points. It is the word that exposes us for who we really are, sinners (James 1:22-24), but also speaks of the life-saving sinner-redeeming mercy found in Jesus.
And it teaches us to therefore act according to that freedom-giving law. We will be judged by that law and found to be righteous, not because we are good or glorious, but because there is mercy. So we ought to treat those we think less glorious in the same way. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Four courtrooms, but one gospel argument that changes the way we treat others.