The Folly of Favoritism

by Steve Trudell on March 10, 2015

The Folly of Favoritism – James 2:1-6a, adapted from a sermon delivered March 8, 2015 at Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church by Assistant Pastor Steve Trudel


            As I was preparing for this sermon I came across an article from 2013 in Forbes magazine which looked at several studies which considered how one’s appearance had a direct effect on how much one is paid. So, based on  these studies, I might suggest if you would like to make a little more money it might be helpful for you to grow a little taller – for every inch you may expect an $800 annual pay increase or another $5000 for every 6 inches.  Or if you’re a women and you don’t have naturally blonde hair, I might suggest you get out the blonde dye for as one university which studied over 13,000 women found, women with blonde hair can expect to earn more than 7% than women of any other hair color.  Put on a little weight over the holidays?  Better get to the gym, it’s not only good for your heart but it is equally good for your wallet for those who are perceived to be in good physical condition get paid almost 10% more than their couch-potato co-workers.   The list goes on but I think you get the point… we are judged on external appearances.  In the article I just cited it look at the angle of how this plays out in the workplace, however I don’t think you need a lot of imagination to recognize and agree that this idea plays itself out in a myriad of other areas of our lives as well… in our social circles, in our friendships, our churches, in our evaluations of others the first time we meet.  It seems unfair, it tugs at our “all-men-are-created-equal- American mindsets,” yet nevertheless, showing favoritism according to external appearances is part of our fallen world and if we are honest it plays a large roll in how we, even as believers look at others as well.   

Well, James has something to say about this matter in chapter 2 of his letter.  For today we will focus on the first 6 verses of chapter 2.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man.

Vs. 1 – He begins, “show no partiality…”  Or as other translations put it, “show no favoritism.”  The word in the Greek means literally, “to receive someone according to their face.”  Or to put it more plainly, a good paraphrase would be: “Do not judge or be partial towards others based on external appearance.”  The word is actually in the plural which is important to keep in mind for while James will focus his following example on ill-advised favoritism based on wealth, the theological principle which he is going to flesh out is not limited to wealth; but rather, it is meant to be applied more broadly to judging according to all sorts of external things… think skin color, ethnicity, accent, looks, clothing, social status, career path, and the such.   And so, as you read you may have applied James’ illustration of the rich man and the poor man in a narrow fashion and think that you have escaped James’ admonition, but his larger principle remains intact and as we think about it carefully we may find we are squirming in our seats, even if it’s just a little.

Now read again all of verse 1.  Why does he begin this way?  In this verse James juxtaposes two things which are simply incompatible – favoritism based on external appearance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  He wants to be clear from the start that showing favoritism is inconsistent with the One in whom we profess to have faith and contrary to His will for His people.  James here is not introducing a new idea.  Take for example Deuteronomy 10:17 which describes the Lord this way, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great and mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and who takes no bribes.”  He expects the same from his people… for example Leviticus 19 where the Lord is letting His people know how they are to live before Him and before each other and he tells them, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great…” (Lev 19:15). 

And here in verse 1 James draws our attention to Jesus, the Lord, the Lord of glory, who did not show favor based on outward appearance.  Who healed an ostracized leper on one day and a servant at the request of a well-respected Roman centurion the next.  Who on his way through Jericho sought out a wealthy chief tax collector named Zacchaeus perched in a tree and who on another occasion sat by a well with a shunned Samaritan women and ministered to her deepest needs.  The Lord, our Lord does not show favoritism.  Paul who reminds us this directly in Romans, simply stating, “God shows no partiality,” (or favoritism, Rom 2:11) and later in Galatians that in Him there is neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female,” (Gal 3:28).  And so James is consistent with and states clearly and simply what any good listener to the Word of the Lord would know and that is that when we show favoritism based on external appearances we demonstrate an inconsistency with the One in whom we profess to have faith.

Okay James, got it, now… could you give me an example of what this look like on the ground?  Yes I can, James says, glad you asked.  The scene he describes begins “For if…” that is this is hypothetical (although I think that it hit his original readers quite near the heart of their personal experience).  He tells of two men coming into a gathering of believers, perhaps, most likely, a worship service.  The first man comes in all spiffed up in the latest fashions of the ruling class that money can buy, luxurious and resplendent robe with all the right edges, hair quaffed, and fingers aglow with shiny gold – the symbol of Roman wealth.  Someone, perhaps an usher, fawningly approaches the stately man and ushers him into the best seat in the house.

A second man comes in dressed in mismatched, stained and filthy rags.  Face dirty, hair awry, and looking like he hasn’t slept for days.  The usher, points to an empty seat off in a corner or he says with an air of superiority, “if you must you can sit here on the floor at my feet.”  (pause)

And in doing so they have “become judges with evil thoughts.  It is tough to surmise here but perhaps at the root of their showing favor to the rich, is that they are currying favor, looking to their own self-interests, and in in looking unfavorably on the poor they are puffing themselves up as they look down upon the poor man and treat him as their inferior.  What is clear is that at the root of their evil thoughts is that in this rendering of judgment they are usurping the role of the Lord, who James will remind them in 4:12 is the only lawgiver and judge.  And making the problem worse, in usurping the Lord’s role they do it in a manner which is contrary to His ways, for the Lord does not make judgments based on external appearance.

Well, really I think we can agree that this illustration is quite appalling, don’t you think?  Grabs us right in our, “all-men are created equal American jugular” and makes us wince.  But I wonder if it is really too far- fetched for us to imagine.  Perhaps Tom Brady (I know not all of you will find my choice here terribly compelling but I had to pick someone so as a nod to Patriots fans, especially my boys I will go with Brady here).  So, Tom Brady walks in this morning and we think, wow, Tom Brady… what a witness he could be for Christ if he came to faith, not to mention he could be the answer to our faithful prayers for funds for our building project… and it certainly won’t look good if he’s made to wander around looking for a seat and ends up sitting next to someone who sings terribly… no… Tom, nice to have you here this morning come with me, right this way, I’ve got a perfect place for you to sit.  And behind him comes a rather disheveled, sad looking fellow shuffling in, bumping into a few chairs as he makes his way.  Well certainly we won’t kick him out, we agree he needs to hear the gospel and will rejoice when he believes, but would we treat him the same as Brady?

Perhaps we would, or perhaps we would not, but either way, do we collectively, or do I or you individually, show favoritism based on external appearances in a variety of other ways?  The clothes someone is wearing as they arrive to church?  The cars they drive or the vacations they take or the foods they eat or don’t eat or how often they work out or how healthy they appear or how well they are at their jobs or how well their hair is groomed or their nails are cut or how green their lawns are?  I think we do.  I know I do and when I do I betray my testimony in the Lord who does not show favoritism and is alone lawgiver and judge.  Studying and preparing for a sermon has its benefits, though most of the time I find those benefits come at a cost to my pride.  I know I am guilty, I know I need mercy which is new every morning in this regard.  How about you?

Well, as if he hasn’t given enough of a pause here to consider the folly of favoritism, James will now give three specific reasons why we ought not to show favoritism.  The first two he stays on the topic on the rich and the poor and in the third he will cast his net a little wider.  This morning we will look at the first reason (vs 5-6a) and pick up next week where we have left off (6b-13).

 (Read 5) What James is saying here would be readily apparent to his first century listeners.  The early church was made up largely members of the lower class, reflecting the stratification of the Roman Empire in which there was no real middle class, but there was a small upper class and then everyone else clinging to the bottom rung.  So as the original readers look around their assembly they see mostly those from the lower classes.  But let’s be careful here and notice that James does not imply that the Lord excludes the rich from those whom he has chosen.  We have already seen early in chapter one that there were at least some amongst them who were indeed from the wealthy class and I’m sure James is not forgetting his Bible which shows people like Job and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Hezekiah and many others who were wealthy yet considered among those chosen by God.

In the context of this passage what James is telling his that the God they serve, the One in whom they profess to have faith does not show favoritism like they are.   He is telling his readers to, “look at who’s sitting next to you, look who the Lord has chosen?”   They are the ones who in the eyes of the world (NIV captures this best) are poor.  But God has chosen them to be rich, rich in faith.  He shows no partiality based on wealth or any other worldly standard.  

Consider for a moment who it is God chooses to be rich in faith in the pages of scripture, those whom he chooses to serve his sovereign kingdom plan.  He chooses as His spokesman in Egypt, Moses, a reluctant stutterer.  Through Samuel he chooses David, a shepherd boy, the youngest of a large group of brothers to become the anointed king over His people.  He chooses Gideon, the least of his brothers from the least of the tribes to lead his people against the Midianites.  He chooses Mary, a poor teenage girl to give birth to the savior who will begin his ministry by gathering around him disciples not gathered from the ruling class or honors graduates with seminary degrees; but rather fishermen, tax-collectors, and others not considered worthy of such a calling in the eyes of the world. He would chose Paul, to be a leading apostle of the early church, the most unlikely of all characters for such a task, one who zealously went about persecuting all those who believed Jesus to be the Son of God (pause).

God does not show favoritism based on external factors.  It is as Paul tells the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 1:27-31) - that the Lord chooses those who are nothing in and of themselves, nothing according to worldly standards in order that none may boast in themselves but that all boasting is done in the Lord.  His lack of partiality is for His glory.

And if we are among those who are called to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom then we ought to reflect the attitude of the king.  Kingdom – implies a king… and the heirs of the king look like the king himself.  And when we show favoritism we not only don’t look like our Father the king, but we dishonor those whom God has chosen to honor the poor man (6a), and in doing so we dishonor the king himself.  

The Lord’s message, that He would have us hear this morning, is that He is not a God who shows favoritism based on external appearances and he expects His children to follow suit.  For when we do not we become judges with evil thoughts, seeking to usurp the role of God Himself and in so doing we betray any consistency between the faith we claim to have and the One in who we profess to have faith.

Our flesh and everything in our world compels us to judge people by a standard other than the Lord’s standard.  “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7b).  Do we need help?  We do.  We rely on the Lord’s grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  And we look to Jesus who showed no favoritism based on external appearances in His earthly ministry and who shows no favoritism as He reigns on high in glory.  And we thank Him that he didn’t do so as He chose each of us to be rich in faith and heirs of His kingdom.  We look to Him not only as our example, but also because He has given us His Spirit that we may live according to all which His Word Commands.

May we be renewed in His Word - not showing favoritism as we hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 


Your fellow servant of Christ,


Steve Trudel