Distinctions that Dishonor
We live in world in which people will divide over nearly anything. People make distinctions based on skin color, political affiliation, economic status, and, in some cities, even the side of the train tracks on which someone was raised. This is the way the world works. But this is not the way God works. Because God does not work this way, a Christian cannot honor God while making distinctions about others that God does not make.
James understood that these kinds of distinctions had no place in the lives of the Lord’s disciples, so he wrote to Christians in chapter 2 of his letter, urging them to be impartial. “Show no partiality,” James writes, “as you hold the faith.” In James’ words we find two important truths: first, that there is no place for partiality in the practiced faith of a Christian; and second, that partiality is still a problem for those who serve an impartial Lord.
James illustrates that partiality is a problem for the Lord’s people by pointing to the way a Christian might respond differently to a rich man and a poor man. He shares a sobering truth as he writes that those who have “made distinctions” have, consequently, “become judges with evil thoughts.” James emphasizes the fact that God sees human judgment based on the appearance of another person not only as hurtful to that person but as evil dwelling in the mind of the self-proclaimed judge.
James uses this illustration to demonstrate that such judgmental Christians who show partiality completely miss the spiritual reality of the situation. He argues that it is the poor man that Christians might ignore that God has made exceedingly rich. Conversely, it is the rich man a Christian might honor who, in actuality, dishonors God. In focusing on the outward appearance of another, James concludes, Christians making such distinctions “have dishonored the poor man.” The point, however, is not that James’ audience ought to reverse the distinction—honor the poor man and dishonor the rich man—but that they should honor everyone.
James ultimately says that the way a Christian can practice her faith without partiality and honor everyone is by obeying the Lord’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the same command that the lawyer who tested Jesus in Luke 10 offered as the summation of the law in tandem with the charge to love God with one’s all. Significantly, Jesus acknowledges that the lawyer’s answer is correct, but the lawyer is more concerned with being right than with doing the right thing. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus, after telling a parable about the kind of person a Jew would have hated—a Samaritan—asks the more important question, “Which one of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” The focus, then, is not on distinguishing who is and who is not the kind of person that can be a neighbor to you; the focus is on you being a neighbor to everyone.
Being a neighbor means that we will not make a person’s appearance, status, or background conditions of us showing them kindness and respect. Being a neighbor means obeying the Lord when He says, “You go, and do likewise.”