James 2:1-13: A Community of Mercy

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The exact words of the so-called “Jesus prayer” aren’t in the Bible, but the prayer does reflect a consistent theme throughout Scripture (Psalm 51:1, Matthew 20:30, Luke 18:14, and 1 Timothy 1:15-16). We are hopeless, wretched sinners, in desperate need of a God who, in His rich mercy, sent His only Son to save us. Mercy means giving favor to someone in need. The Church exists because God has shown favor to people in dire need. Mercy should, therefore, be a fundamental part of the Church’s culture.

These ideas are behind James’ practical instruction in James 2:1-13. Last month, we looked at the ways in which James showed how Christians must be distinct from the world. The final distinction should be the way Christians care for the needy. A religion that doesn’t lead its members to visit widows and orphans is worthless (James 1:26-27). Chapter 2 continues this theme in a more practical way.

To understand and apply James’ major point, we must ask: What would it be like to be a community of mercy? One characteristic of such a community is treating everyone as having equal worth. What keeps Christians from treating people of equal worth? The sin of partiality.

The temptation to show favoritism arises when we start treating people as if the most important fact about them is their wealth or status. Once we adopt this mindset, we’ve committed the sin of partiality.

James shows both what partiality looks like and why it’s wrong. Christians show partiality when they treat a wealthy visitor much differently than one who is poor (2:2-4). Why is partiality wrong? When we’re partial to the rich, we’re assuming the role of a judge (2:4). We are assessing people’s worth and deeming a wealthy individual as mattering more.

This ignores the fact that those who are materially poor reflect the deeper reality that we all are spiritually bankrupt before God (2:5). Showing partiality to the rich is breaking God’s command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (2:8-12), and this sin makes us guilty just as quickly as adultery or murder.

What should Christians do instead of showing partiality? James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). It’s not that Christians should look past sin or refuse to call sin for what it is. The point James is making is that we shouldn’t be in the business of determining people’s worth by their bank accounts. We should, like our God, show favor to those in need. As the Lord says in another place, the merciful are the ones who will receive mercy from God (Matthew 5:7).

So many in our society are lonely, alienated, and hurting. We even have the relatively recent term “deaths of despair” to describe the tragic effects of this loneliness and hurt. We claim that a merciful God gave us undeserved favor in response to our cries for mercy. Has this truth transformed our lives? Do our actions and attitudes give unbelievers reason to believe that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13)? Will we heed James’ call? By God’s grace, will we be an oasis of mercy in a desert of despair?

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