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Synopsis: Partiality and the Royal Law

This week’s passage from James (2:1-13) presents an impassioned plea against favoritism. Showing partiality to the rich dishonors the poor (2:6). As one should come to expect in James, the rich are shown no mercy. These are the people who “oppress you” and who “drag you into court” (1:6)

The basis for James’ appeal lies in what he calls the “royal law” (2:8). He also refers to it as “the law of liberty” (2:12). He concludes this section with a strong message of “judgment” against those who do not show mercy (2:13).

Questions for Discussion:

1. Law. How does James understand “law”? The “royal law” commands you to love your neighbor as yourself. But can love be commanded?

2. Favoritism. James sounds like he favors the poor and damns the rich in 2:1-6. Is there no hope for the wealthy? (Cf. 1:9-11). Leviticus 19:15, three verses before the quotation that James cites: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), declares that one should not show favoritism to the wealthy or the poor: “you shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” James seems to ignore that call to balance. Is wisdom literature – James could be called New Testament wisdom literature, like Proverbs in the Old Testament – by nature imbalanced, oversimplifying and drawing sharp lines where there really are shades of gray?

3. Judgment, law, love. How is being “judged by the law of liberty” (2:12), connected with love?

4. Mercy triumphs over justice, but…. If mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13), isn’t it rather unmerciful to say that “judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy”? (2:13). How is it then that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13) if “judgment is without mercy”?

5. Showing mercy when one has received mercy. Jesus’ parable of the two debtors (Matt. 18:23-35) stresses the importance of showing mercy when one has received mercy. Micah 6:8 also highlights the importance of mercy. Can one win the unmerciful to mercy by being harsh to them?

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