James uses a vivid illustration to teach an important lesson on showing favouritism or partiality. The lesson remains relevant today because partiality continues to be a social ill, sadly even in the church.
“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts (James 2:1-4)?”
Showing favouritism has no place in the faith of Jesus Christ. Christians cannot exercise true Christian living by displaying partiality toward certain people.
James cuts right into a problem everyone either has struggled with or currently still struggles with—judging a person by his/her appearance.
Our society stresses much on etiquette. Dressing well and even stylishly is desired and considered a mark of culture. Almost on auto-pilot, we respect people who are well-dressed and well-groomed.
What about the person whose clothes don’t fit? Maybe his shirt is one or two sizes too big. Or his pants are a little too long. Maybe she has food stains on her blouse or her hair isn’t immaculate. Again on auto-pilot, it is easy to regard this person with lower esteem.
What’s worse, there seems to be an almost instinctive tendency to judge a shabbily-dressed person to be of an inferior moral character than the one who is well-dressed and well-groomed.
What has dressing to do with a person’s morality unless that person is immodestly dressed?
A case in point. It is unfortunately far too common to hear disparaging remarks from locals about foreign workers in the manual labour industries. They have been unfairly regarded as uncouth and lowly educated among other criticism. I shall not repeat any of these disparaging remarks. Surely you must have heard or read some of them.
But then, have we perhaps made any of these remarks? Or entertained them in our heads? Have we laughed at jokes made at their expense? Do we try to move away from them on public transport because we are afraid we might be somehow ‘contaminated’?
I was on a train one Sunday evening when I heard a woman telling her kid, who looked like he was 4 or 5, to get away from “these people” when a group of foreign workers boarded the train. Her reasoning was “they might catch you!”
James uses a real-life illustration. Suppose someone dressed to the nines walks into our assembly. Are we more ready to welcome that person? Do we find it easier to try to make conversation with that visitor?
A shabbily-dressed visitor walks in as well. Perhaps there is an odd smell about him/her. Do we leave him/her alone? Will any member be willing to sit with that visitor and get to know him/her after the service is over?
Or suppose one person looks healthy and fit while another apparently struggles with a very real weight problem. Overweight people are often depicted in the media as clumsy, silly, not very bright, comedic, mean and rather ‘uncool’—whatever society’s standard of ‘cool’ is at the moment.
Now, do we as Christians subtly agree with this distorted image of overweight people? Again, are we more ready to extend welcome to a person in shape than a person out of shape?
Showing partiality isn’t confined only to judging a person by his/her appearance.
What about education? What about occupation? What about places of residence? What about nationality? What about hobbies or recreation? What about mannerisms? Do we secretly despise a klazomaniac (a person who can only speak by shouting)? How about someone who is the opposite of witty and charming?
You see, there are so many ways the sin of partiality can manifest itself. We simply have to be more aware and reflective of our own thoughts, attitudes and actions toward others.
This is not merely a problem to be swept under the carpet as just another ‘cultural’ issue. James says that when we practise partiality, we “become judges of evil thoughts”.
Take a moment and let this sink in: partiality is evil in the sight of the Lord. It is sin. It is breaking the law to “love thy neighbour as thyself (Mark 12:31).” It is a violation of the Golden Rule.
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Mat 7:12).”
Our God and Saviour is no respecter of persons (cf. Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). The Son of God shed His blood to take away the sins of the world—not merely the well-dressed, well-groomed, well-mannered, highly educated, big car-driving, big house-living, jet plane-flying, etc. individuals.
Every soul is precious to the Lord. We must not and shall not turn anyone away because of bias or prejudice. You never know but the next unimpressive-looking person might have a good and ready heart for the seed of the gospel to be planted.