The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 9: The implication of guilt

Notice James implicates his brothers’ of their fault by posting a rhetorical question: “has God not chosen the poor…?” This question indicates the expectation of an affirmative answer, because the church knew well that God had chosen the poor, since this concept of God’s preferential option for the poor is already deeply rooted in both Jewish and Christian thought[1].

Notice also how James clearly distinguishes the type of rich person about whom he is speaking. Instead of merely referring to him as “the rich,” he writes “a man in gold rings in fine clothing” –characteristic adornment of a wealthy person[2]. Furthermore, James emphasized that the God whom they serve as co-servants, the God who has implanted his word upon them has: “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” on the other hand James also highlights that this divine option for the poor is a promise that can only be claimed by the poor who loves God –thus the poor who are part of their faith community, and it is here where the irony of the situation lies.

As the Christians do not simply discriminate against the poor, but they do so in favour of the rich. This means that they are siding with the very class which both historical and at present persecutes the impoverished believer. They have made the church into a tool of persecution[3]. The legal overtones function as an example, which asserts that Christians run the risk of becoming like those who persecute them (2:6-7). That persecution takes the form of court proceedings in which the superiority of the rich enables them to oppress the Christian. James suggests that this hostility stems from the fact that the weaker party is a Christian (2:7)[4].

All James’ sympathy goes to the afflicted and to the weak; he has written mainly for them: Like the Old Testament prophets, he takes issue with social injustice; at the same time, however, he considers poverty to have a religious value which makes of the unfortunate the privileged friends of God –the anawim[5].

Anawim is the plural form of an Old Testament Hebrew word which is variously translated as “poor”, “afflicted”, “humble”, or “meek”. These humble people became known as the anawim or the “faithful remnant.” It is often used in the Psalms, including Psalm 37:11, which reads, “Blessed are the anawim for they shall inherit the earth.” Furthermore the anawim, are “the lost and the forgotten ones”, that Jesus referred to in the beatitudes.

In verses 6-7 James now turns bluntly to his audience to implicate them of their guilt by using the pronoun ‘you’ he points the blame on his brothers who have dishonoured the poor person in their church. Aside from reprimanding his audience he reminds them of their identity that they are likewise poor as well thus reminding them that it is the rich among their midst that unexceptionally oppresses them by dragging them to courts. In response, James also calls upon the poor to exercise equality by showing no special favour for the rich and affluent among their assembly, because in showing partiality they themselves acknowledge inequality as germane to their community thus being unfair to themselves in favour of the rich. Here James puts forward a startling realization for his audience –equality works both ways: the rich should give special attention to the needs of the poor; the poor should likewise give no special treatment to the rich; while the church should show no distinction between both the rich and the poor – hence exhibiting levelling effect of the Christian gospel!

[1] Davids, Peter. The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text. p.111

[2] Maynard-Reid, Pedrito. Poverty and Wealth in James p.59

[3] Davids, Peter. The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text. p.112

[4] Perkins, Pheme. First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching p.111

[5] Harrington, Wilfrid. Keys to the Bible Vol. 3 p. 140


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