JAMES 2 - THE RICH AND POOR
We come each week to memorialize the sacrifice of Christ by sharing the emblems of bread and wine, representing his body and blood, which was given for us. We each come from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, yet our common faith unites us in fellowship, bringing together men and women who ordinarily would have nothing to do with one another. Servants and masters, male and female, Jew and Gentile (Gal. 3:28), all unite as one in Christ Jesus. In him, the rich and poor are brought together, as the Proverb has it: “the rich and poor meet together: Yahweh is the maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2). This is one of the central themes of the epistle of James: the rich and the poor: “let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of grass he shall pass away” (Jas. 1:9-10). In Christ, the natural positions are inverted: the poor are exalted, and the rich masters are humbled to become the servants of Christ.
James chapter 2 describes a situation, which was evidently a problem in the ecclesia between the rich and poor:
“If there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” (Jas. 2:2-4)
Judging according to appearance rather than in righteousness, men despised their brethren, poor in this world – though rich in faith, and showed respect of persons according to the value of their clothing rather than the value of likemindedness in the things of the living God.
There is an interesting example of this in the case of John the Baptiser. He was a poor man, arrayed in a garment of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey for his food (Mat. 3:4). It is evident that the Jews exercised respect of persons, and could not accept the words of such a man, hence the Master spoke to them:
“what went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before my face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mat. 11:7-11).
Here is a most remarkable situation: John was the greatest of those that are born of women, yet he did not dwell in king’s courts, and neither did he wear the sumptuous garments of royalty. He was a rough man, living in the wilderness, “without the camp” as it were. But he was “the voice” which would announce the coming of Messiah, prophesied by Yahweh’s servants of old. And in this mission, the Word did not come to the high and mighty of this world: had it done so, the princes of this world would have known the revealed mystery, and would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2:7-8). Rather, it bypassed all the men of means and influence. So John is introduced:
“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea, and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiphas being the high priests, the word of God came to John in the wilderness …” (Lu. 3:1-2).
The mightiest men of the world were passed over as being unsuitable for the declaration of Yahweh’s Glory, and instead John was chosen in the wilderness. To judge according to appearance would have indicated an unworthiness on the part of such a rough character – yet it so pleased Yahweh to reveal himself in this way, so that His glory, not mans’ would be demonstrated. This was a judgment of righteousness, against the inclinations of the natural man. Hence the exhortation given when speaking of our Lord and Master: “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:13-14). Like John, we have no lasting city, but dwell in a spiritual wilderness, finding no pleasure in worldly affairs, as we look for the day of coming glory.
In demonstrating that he purpose of God is not revealed those who are mighty in this world, James continues this theme:
“Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?” (Jas. 2:5).
Again, it is written elsewhere that:
“God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
According to natural considerations, the motley mix of men and women that comprise the ecclesia of Christ, are weak and contemptible – and like their Lord – despised and rejected of men. Yet these are rich in that which matters: their faith.
Riches and poverty are relative ideas. In many things in the western world, we are richer than Solomon. We take so many things for granted: instant hot and cold running (and safe) water. Light at the touch of a switch – and all of the other wonders of electrical equipment. These are taken to be but the bare minimum for even a lowly existence in our society, yet even Solomon in all his splendor did not have these. He was considered rich without them, whereas we are considered poor with only these as a bare minimum! But with familiarity comes expectancy. We do not ordinarily consider ourselves as being rich, despite the abundance of this world’s goods. But we know that some of our readers live in very difficult circumstances, and do not have anywhere near those things so taken for granted in the affluent west. They are rich in faith, which at the last, is all that really matters.
Consider the example of a certain widow, who cast into the treasury a very small amount – just 2 mites. Such an insignificant amount could not accomplish much, nowhere near the gifts of the rich. To judge by appearance, her contribution was minuscule, not worth bothering with. But to judge righteous judgment, her contribution was worth far more than anything that they gave. Hence Messiah spake:
“Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all: for all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had” (Lu. 21:2-4).
Let us never be discouraged at how little we think we have to offer in service towards our Master: the poor widow woman provides a powerful lesson and example that in Messiah’s service, little is great, and great is little by comparison.
Returning to the central theme of James, we are twice told that we must not have respect of persons (Jas 2:1, 9). By contrast, verse 3 instructs us to love our neighbor as ourselves – whosoever our neighbor might be. Our Master gave a parable to describe who our neighbor is, as described in Luke 10:30-37, with the neighbor being correctly identified by his hearer as “he that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” Here is the plain teaching: rather than to have respect of persons in judgment, we must show mercy to those around us who need healing – in a spiritual sense as well as the physical.
THE LAW OF LIBERTY
In his admonition to faith and good works, James instructs us: “so speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty” (Jas. 2:12). The question arises therefore: What is the “law of liberty”. The allusion is to a feature of the Mosaic Law, as recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 15. In this chapter, we have described the “year of release”, where every seventh year, those who were in debt were released from their creditors, and their debt forgiven. The commandment was given that if a brother fell upon hard times, provision was to be made to support him, by way of lending money, or other goods:
“If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in the land which Yahweh thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother: but thou shalt upon thy hand wide unto him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth” (Deut. 15:7-8).
However, there was a safeguard to ensure that the poor brother would not be overburdened with debt: every 7th year was a “year of release”, when the debt would be forgiven and written off, to be owed no more. But this could give opportunity for human nature to assert itself: if the year of release was about to commence, the lender could well refuse to lend to the borrower, on the basis that the debt would not be repaid. Provision was made for this: in the period leading up to the year of release, a lender would give his brother a gift, and not a loan – and by doing this, the lender would be entering the spirit of the year of release in forgiving the debt, not requiring it to be paid back. So we read:
“Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release is at hand; and thy eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto Yahweh against thee, and it shall be sin unto thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing Yahweh thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto” (Deut. 15:9-10).
In the context of James, to live by “the law of liberty”, or the spirit of the Year of Release, is to make provision for the poor without requiring the debt to be paid. In other words, it is about showing forgiveness of debts to those who need it – as our Master said in his model prayer: “… forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Mat. 6:12). Forgiveness is the order of the day for brethren and sisters in Christ, and we shall be judged on how we forgive others. As James has it:
“he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (Jas. 2:13).
ALLUSIONS TO DAVID
There appears to be a number of allusions in James to King David, some of which we shall briefly consider. James chapter 2 and verse 5 refers to “my beloved brethren,” and the name “David” literally means “beloved”. The central issue of the Epistle is that of rich and poor, and the relationships between them. Moreover, the Epistle cites two examples of the Law to epitomize sin: adultery and murder (see 2:11). The context of 2 Samuel 12, is to do with David’s adultery with Bath-sheba, and the subsequent killing/murder of Uriah, her husband – and verse 1 speaks in terms of “the rich” and “the poor”, being the words of Nathan the prophet:
“there were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb … And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress it for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him” (2 Sam. 12:1-4).
This was a parable of what David had done. The wayfaring man is the temptation that came upon David when he saw the beauty of Bath-sheba as she washed herself in view from the roof of his house. To satisfy his lustful urge, he took her – though she was the ewe-lamb of her husband, Uriah, a poor man by comparison. But interestingly, when David pronounced his sentence on the rich man in the parable, he showed no mercy – and even went beyond the requirement of the Law of Moses:
“As Yahweh liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam. 12:6).
The Law did not prescribe death for such cases, and so in making his judgment on the rich man, David went beyond what the Law required. He showed hardness of heart, and no mercy. But by contrast, Yahweh forgave him his sin when he realized what he had done, and made confession before Him: “David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against Yahweh. And Nathan said unto David, Yahweh also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die: (2 Sam. 12:13). Some other allusions to David are the record that he had made provision for the enemy to blaspheme (2 Sam. 12:14 see Jas. 3:7), and the reference to kill, and desire to have, in James chapter 4.
Psalm 51 was written following the king’s sin, and in it David beseeches Yahweh to have mercy upon him:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (Psa. 51:1).
Here is the point: we desire mercy from our Father, and the forgiveness of our sins against him, yet we must likewise show mercy upon others: “he shall have judgment without mercy that hath showed no mercy” is the Divine maxim. Let us go and do likewise, showing no respect of persons, that we might indeed receive mercy when we appear before our Lord.