Social justice has become the issue of our day, but what did James say to the early Christians about concern for the poor and the oppressed?
This is the ninth of an 18-part devotional series. Sign-up here to have these devotionals sent straight to your inbox.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Many consider social justice the issue of our day. That’s because in recent history much light has been shed on the disparity that exists between rich and poor, between white people and people of color, and between men and women. All have given rise to various secular movements in response to these injustices.
As we have seen throughout this devotional series so far, James is also very concerned with issues of social justice. He is particularly concerned about how the church is relating between classes. Inside the church, James envisions a community that “shows no partiality,” and seeks to give dignity to those who otherwise have none. This is a key theme that runs throughout James’ letter: that real faith is expressed through righteous living, and righteous living consists of seeking justice and loving mercy. James is simply calling Christians back to living how they are supposed to live as the people of God, which naturally creates a truly just community.
This week’s passage speaks directly to social justice issues and teaches us something that seems radical about God and the Gospel. James says that God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.
This is a radical statement. Many people today believe that Christianity is a source of oppression in this world. But James says that God has especially chosen the poor. What does this mean?
This does not mean that there are no wealthy Christians (in fact James mentions rich Christians in James 1:10-11). But it does mean that the poor and the oppressed grasp and understand the Gospel more readily than the rich and powerful do. We should not be surprised by this considering Jesus’ words in Luke 6: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…but woe to you rich, for you have received your consolation.”
So what is it about the Gospel that is so appealing to the poor and yet is harder for the rich to grasp? The answer lies at the heart of the Gospel itself.
The Bible teaches us that there are two ways to miss the Gospel. The first is to live a life of depravity, breaking all the rules and never turning to God. The second way to miss the Gospel, however, is by keeping all the rules and expecting good things to come your way because of it. Both paths lead us away from Christ.
Consequently, this makes the poor and the oppressed more receptive to the Gospel because they are under no illusions that their hard work will move them further up the social or religious ladder. Their lowliness is apparent both to themselves and to everyone else. This leaves them receptive to the Gospel because the Gospel message, at its heart, is this: though you are completely spiritually destitute, you can receive a future and an inheritance through a humble dependence upon Christ and a true love for him. This is wealth beyond imagining to the poor!
On the other hand, this is a great challenge to upper and middle-class Americans because we’re conditioned to believe that upward mobility—socially, economically, etc.—is always on the horizon if we work hard enough. We believe “good things come to those who help themselves.” Consequently, we envy those higher up the social ladder while also looking down on those who are lower than us. But James says that when we show partiality like this we are “committing sin.” Why is that?
Well, the litmus test of true Christian faith which James hints at over and over again in his letter is this: if your identity is not being changed into a person who deeply cares for those in need, then your faith is not saving faith. This is because people who have truly believed the Gospel have been humbled enough to know that they are completely spiritually bankrupt. And, at the same time, they know that Jesus has gone to the greatest lengths possible to meet all of their needs. Only a truly humble heart will be desperate enough to give their entire heart and life to Jesus, and this can only ever lead to a life that looks tenderly upon the sufferings and shortcomings of others because you know that’s the way God has looked at you. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
So what are the implications of this for us today? It’s actually pretty straightforward. If you have a connection to God, you will choose what he has chosen, and you will care tenderly about what he cares about. And God has chosen the poor and the lowly.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Resident in Washington, D.C.