My brothers, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.…
Let us not misunderstand St. James. He does not say or imply that the poor man is promised salvation on account of his poverty, or that his poverty is in any way meritorious. That is not the case, any more than that the wealth of the rich is a sin. But so far as God has declared any preference, it is for the poor rather than for the rich. The poor man has fewer temptations, and he is more likely to live according to God's will, and to win the blessings that are in store for those who love Him. His dependence upon God for the means of life is perpetually brought home to him, and he is spared the peril of trusting in riches, which is so terrible a snare to the wealthy. He has greater opportunities of the virtues which make man Christlike, and fewer occasions of falling into those sins which separate him most fatally from Christ. But opportunities are not virtues, and poverty is not salvation, Nevertheless, to a Christian a poor man is an object of reverence rather than of contempt. But the error of the worldly Christians whom St. James is here rebuking does not end with dishonouring the poor whom God has honoured; they also pay special respect to the rich. Have the rich, as a class, shown that they deserve anything of the kind? Very much the reverse, as experience is constantly proving. "Do not the rich oppress you?" &c. St. James is thinking of the rich Sadducees, who at this period ( A.D. 35-65) were among the worst oppressors of the poorer Jews, and of course were specially bitter against those who had become adherents of "the Way," and who seemed to them to be renegades from the faith of their forefathers. It was precisely to this kind of oppression that St. Paul devoted himself with fanatical zeal previous to his conversion (Acts 9:1, 2; 1 Timothy 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6). "The judgment-seats" before which these wealthy Jews drag their poorer brethren may be either heathen or Jewish courts (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:2, 4), but are probably the Jewish courts frequently held in the synagogues. The Roman Government allowed the Jews very considerable powers of jurisdiction over their own people, not only in purely ecclesiastical matters, but in civil matters as well. The Mosaic law penetrated into almost all the relations of life, and where it was concerned it was intolerable to a Jew to be tried by heathen law. Consequently the Romans found that their control over the Jews was more secure and less provocative of rebellion when the Jews were permitted to retain a large measure of self-government. These were the times when women bedight the priesthood for their husbands from Herod Agrippa II., and went to see them officiate, over carpets spread from their own door to the temple; when wealthy priests were too fastidious to kill the victims for sacrifice without first putting on silk gloves; when their kitchens were furnished with every appliance for luxurious living, and their tables with every delicacy; and when, supported by the Romans, to whom they truckled, they made war upon the poor priests, who were supported by the people. Like Hophni and Phinehas, they sent out their servants to collect what they claimed as offerings, and if payment was refused the servants took what they claimed by force. Facts like these help us to understand the strong language used here by St. James, and the still sterner words at the beginning of the fifth chapter. In such a state of society the mere possession of wealth certainly established no claims upon the reverence of a Christian congregation; and the fawning upon rich people, degrading and unchristian at all times, would seem to St. James to be specially perilous and distressing then. "Do not they blaspheme the honourable name by which ye are called?" The last clause literally means "which was called upon you"; and we need not doubt that the reference is to the name of Christ, which was invoked upon them at their baptism. That the blasphemers are not Christians is shown by the clause "which was called upon you." Had Christians been intended, St. James would have written, "Do not they blaspheme the honourable name which was called upon them?" That they blasphemed the name in which they were baptized would have been such an aggravation of their offence that he would not have failed to indicate it. These blasphemers were, no doubt, Jews; and St. James has in his mind the anathemas against Jesus Christ which were frequent utterances among the Jews, both in the synagogues and in conversation. His argument, therefore, amounts to this, that the practice of honouring the rich for their riches is (quite independently of any dishonour done to the poor) doubly reprehensible. It involves the meanness of flattering their own oppressors and the wickedness of reverencing those who blaspheme Christ. It is a servile surrender of their own rights, and base disloyalty to their Lord. But perhaps (the argument continues) some will defend this respect paid to the rich as being no disloyalty to Christ, but, on the contrary, simple fulfilment of the royal law, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Be it so, that the rich as a class are unworthy of respect and honour, yet nevertheless they are our neighbours, and no misconduct on their side can cancel the obligation on our side to treat them as we should wish to be treated ourselves. We ourselves like to be respected and honoured, and therefore we pay respect and honour to them. To those who argue thus the reply is easy. Certainly, if that is your motive, ye do well. But why do you love your neighbour as yourselves if he chances to be rich, and treat him like a dog if he chances to be poor? The law of loving one's neighbour as one's self is a "royal law," as being sovereign over other laws, inasmuch as it is one of those two on which "hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:40). Indeed, either of the two may be interpreted so as to cover the whole duty of man. Thus St. Paul says of this royal law, "The whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Galatians 5:14); and St. John teaches the same truth in a different way when he declares that he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen cannot love God whom he hath not seen (1 John 4:20). "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in-one point, he is become guilty of all." The law is the expression of one and the same principle — love; and of one and the same will — the will of God. Therefore he who deliberately offends against any one of its enactments, however diligently he may keep all the rest, is guilty of offending against the whole. His guiding principle is not love, but selfishness — not God's will, but his own. He keeps nine-tenths of the law because he likes to do so, and he breaks one-tenth because he likes to do so.
(A. Plummer, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.