We now have finished going through James 2 in General Epistles class... some notes on the first part:
2:1 My brothers, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with favoritism.
If "faith" in this verse has anything like the meaning it will have later in the chapter, it probably refers to a set of beliefs relating to Jesus Christ, presumably having to do with the fact that he is the glorious Lord, the king of the Jews. This faith regarding Jesus entails significant consequences for life, one of which is not to show favoritism toward others, particularly because of their wealth or poverty. James will get to the royal law of love later in this section, a law that favoritism directly contradicts.
2:2-4 For if a gold-ringed man with splendid clothing should come into your gathering (synagoge), and a poor [person] should also enter with dirty clothes, and you should look on the one wearing the splendid clothing and should say, "You, sit here well," and to the poor [person] you should say, "You, stand there or sit at my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become enacters (kritai) of evil thoughts?
The situation James has in mind is at first glance fairly easy to picture. A group of believers are gathered and two individuals enter the gathering. A fine seat is given to a wealthy person while a poor person is made subservient even to the seater. Such a practice, while natural enough in terms of typical human favoritism toward wealthy patrons, is to be rejected by those with faith in Jesus as Lord, who follow the kingdom law of love.
However, beyond this basic understanding, questions arise. Exactly what kind of a gathering is pictured and is this rich person a part of it? James calls the meeting a "synagoge," which need not refer to a synagogue building as we think of synagogues, but could simply mean a worship meeting. Since James is writing to "the twelve tribes in the Diaspora" (1:1) and James is usually associated with Jewish Christianity, it is reasonable to see a largely Christian Jewish gathering or "synagogue" in view here, perhaps even a "cell group" that is part of a larger Jewish gathering/synagogue.
It is thus reasonable to see the rich person in question as a wealthy Jew, a patron of a larger Jewish community and somewhat of an outsider to the Christian Jews in mind. This person would be like the wealthy person of 1:10, ambiguous in relation to the "brotherhood" and more likely destined to pass away like the grass of the field.
Regardless of whether we understand James himself writing this letter, the letter as a collection of James' general teaching, or a pseudonymous conveyance of James' authority to a later context, we surely must see the situation here as one that was all to common throughout Greek-speaking Jewish Christian communities in the Mediterranean as subsets of broader Jewish communities established their own Christian identity within Judaism. It seems much more difficult to think that James has some more specific context in mind, since the letter does not present itself in that way. One way or another, James presents itself as the voice of James to the broader Greek-speaking Jewish Christian world.
2:5 Hear, my beloved brothers. Has God not chosen the poor in the world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him?
We are reminded of the teaching of Jesus presented in Luke's Sermon on the Plain--"Blessed are you poor... woe to you rich" (Luke 6:20, 24)--and in Matthew's more spiritualized Sermon on the Mount--"Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt. 5:3). Matthew, Luke, and James alike have little good to say about the rich and little hope to hold out to them. Here it is important to keep in mind that the ancient world was not a monetary economy but primarily an agrarian one with a sense of "limited good."
The idea of limited good is that there is a finite amount of goods in the world. Prosperity is thus a "zero-sum" game. There are only so many olives in the world and if one person has more then it follows naturally that someone else has less. There are only so many to go around. We can thus understand the later Arab proverb, "Every rich person is either a thief or the son of a thief."
In the world of Jesus and James, therefore, those who are wealthy in the Jewish community have almost certainly come to such wealth by depriving others of what should be theirs. One has become richer with the consequence that another has become poorer. Divine justice thus entails that the rich will be brought low and the poor will be restored.
The kingdom thus involves a reversal of fortune. "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6:24). The kingdom is thus for those who love God, which by its very nature implies that one does not love worldly possessions.
2:6-7 But you dishonor the poor [person]. Are not the rich oppressing you and they themselves dragging you into court? Do not they themselves blaspheme the good name that has been invoked over you?
The audience seems to be located somewhere in the middle, neither displaced from its inherited place in the world to become poor or inflated beyond its inherited place to become rich. While James thus applies to all believers, it seems directed as much at the leaders and teachers of 3:1 who can make decisions, as to everyone in a gathering. James is primarily directed at those in a Jewish Christian gathering who can do the seating!
The picture of these wealthy visitors blaspheming the name of Christ (presumably) confirms that they are not truly believers. Again, the most plausible scenario is that these are wealthy patrons within broader Jewish communities who retain significant influence over Christian Jews who are a subset of the community. The possibility of dragging them into court may speak of financial obligations.
The question of Christ's name being invoked over a person would naturally apply either to a baptismal setting or the laying on of hands. The former would presumably apply to all believers, while the latter would apply more to leaders set apart. It seems impossible to know for certain which James might have in mind.
2:8-9 If indeed you complete the royal law according to the Scripture--"You will love your neighbor as yourself"--you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you are doing sin, being proven by the Law as transgressors.
It is striking that in such diverse New Testament writings as Matthew 22, Romans 13, Galatians 3, James 2, and 1 John 4, we find the recurring sense that "love of neighbor" summarizes the Christian ethic of behavior toward our fellow human on earth. This common tradition thus very likely goes back to Jesus himself.
The fact that James does not engage in the concrete particulars of the Jewish Law is sometimes used to argue for a setting after the historical James' lifetime for the letter. The argument is that discussions of the Law would surely have a more concrete Jewish flavor, especially given the picture of James in Galatians 2 and James' apparent engagement with Pauline teaching later in this chapter. Nevertheless, such an essential focus is highly appropriate for such a general, catholic letter, especially one aimed at Greek-speaking Christian Jews scattered throughout the world. The concerns of James seem not unlike those of other books like Sirach or Tobit that are not focused on the kinds of purity issues that separated Jew and Gentile. Those concerns may have dominated a particular window of time in the Jerusalem church, but probably were not major concerns for Diaspora Christian Jews at large.
James agrees that the essence of kingdom law, the "royal" law, is not that which separates Jew from Gentile but the very heart of the Law: love of one's neighbor. We have every reason to beleive that James and Paul fundamentally agreed on this point, despite any differences they might have had around the edges of the expanding church. If sin is violation of the Law, then the person who shows favoritism is a transgressor, a law-breaker, no matter how well they might follow the Law's Jewish particulars.
2:10=11 For whoever should keep the whole Law but fail in one [area] has become guilty of all [parts]. For the one who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." And if you do not commit adultery but you murder, you have become a transgressor of law.
These statements sound strangely Pauline. Underlying these statements would seem to be the idea that the entire Law is summed up in "Love your neighbor as yourself." The prohibition of adultery is a playing out of that kingdom law no less than the prohibition of murder. Those who do any one of these things is thus guilty of the entire Law for they have not loved their neighbor.
2:12-13 So be speaking and so be doing as [those] about to be judged by the law of freedom, for judgment is without mercy for those who do not show mercy. Mercy has a boast over judgment.
Once again, we might rather expect such statements to come from the mouth of Paul as from the mouth of James. The "law of freedom" is presumably the law of the kingdom of God, a law that focuses on the essentials of loving one's neighbor rather than the bondage some Jews laid on other Jews in that day. The law of freedom is the law of love and it is a law oriented around mercy rather than judgment. We are reminded again of Jesus' teaching, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7), and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt. 18). In terms of how humans are to relate to each other on earth, mercy is always preferable to justice or condemnation.