This exhortation from James follows a discussion in James 1:19-27, where he instructs his readers about hearing and doing the word. James makes it clear that our belief must be evident in our conduct. He continues this theme as he begins chapter 2.
Whereas the ESV uses “partiality,” the NIV renders the word “favouritism,” and the Phillips translation puts it more colourfully:
Don't ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ!
Snobbery. I can remember when I was in the seventh grade, there were girls who demonstrated snobbery. They looked down their noses at girls who were not pretty enough, popular enough, or fashionable enough, and shunned them. Whether it is called favouritism, snobbery, or partiality, it has no place in the Christian life.
James gives an example of what partiality looks like. A man arrives in the assembly richly adorned, and is immediately welcomed. By contrast, the poor man arrives, looking shabby, and is told not only to “stand over there,” but to “sit at my feet.” James says they are “making distinctions,” or in the NIV, “discriminating.” Furthermore, those who are behaving in this way are becoming judges with “evil intentions” (James. 2:4).
What is the purpose of treating someone in that manner? Can there be any good reason to treat others in such a way? No, there cannot. The only reason why someone would do this is because it makes him feel good about himself. The poor man has been “dishonoured,” or “insulted” (James 2:6). There really is no way to rescue this behaviour from what it is: sin.
James reminds them why this is wrong: the poor have been chosen to be rich in faith, and they are heirs of the kingdom. Their financial circumstances are not what gives them worth or dignity, but rather their standing before God. The command “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” is being violated.
While we may not practice such overt displays of partiality, we may be doing the same thing quietly. Perhaps we hold in higher esteem the celebrity pastor than we do our own pastor, and make this known by our attitude. Maybe we look to bloggers with a big “platform” for counsel, while the wise 75 year old woman in our local church is ignored. Perhaps we regard with cold suspicion the divorced woman, the single mother, the woman who doesn't have any children, or the young person with the tattoos and piercings. We look at those people and we keep them at a distance, assuming they can just mingle with their own kind.
At the end of this section, (James 2:13), James reminds the reader that mercy triumphs over judgment. This does not mean that God no longer judges and only shows mercy. God is holy, and that demands judgment. What James means is that the mercy shown to us by Christ through the cross has triumphed over the judgment we deserve. It is God's mercy which frees us from judgment. Having been shown such mercy, we ought to show mercy to others. When we are showing partiality, judging others and dismissing them, are we treating our neighbour as we would wish to be treated? Do we put ourselves in their position, and wonder how it feels to be dismissed or belittled?
We are all beneficiaries of mercy. When we look at our sin, and what we've been given, it should make us rejoice, praise God, and extend mercy to others. Everywhere we go, there are those who are are poor, weak, or just different from us. But what unites us is not the outward circumstances; it is the reality of being fellow heirs of the kingdom, children of God. James reminds his readers that when they live according to “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” (James 2:8), they are “doing well.” Let us all “do well.”