Updated: Sep 16, 2018
James 2:1-10, 14-17- 9 Sep 18.
Each service of Holy Communion we remind ourselves of what we call the Two Great Commandments – love God and love your neighbour. And then we make our confession that we have not kept this law as we should! In the Epistle of James, Chap 2, verses 1-7, we are given an everyday example of not loving our neighbour. According to the teaching of Jesus, a ‘neighbour’ is anyone who needs our care and attention. James’ parable points out that we are inclined to show favour based upon someone’s external appearance or position in society; rather than to those who really need our care. This is the ‘sin of partiality’, or as the NRSV puts it in verse 1, ‘favouritism’; and as James noted, it is usually the poor and disadvantaged who bear the brunt of this partiality.
In verse 8 James gives us a clue to the understanding of the parable in the first seven verses. We might paraphrase him as saying, “What it all comes to is this: Keep the royal law!” And, the royal law is the law of love: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” James continues, ‘You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to scripture …’
James was able to say this because of two features of the law of love. The first feature of the law of love is that …
I. The law of love is a royal law
It is so for two reasons. The first reason why it is a royal law is because it is the law of the kingdom.
You will no doubt recall the discussion between Jesus and some Jewish religious leaders, around a question on the law of the Torah. These religious leaders, ‘majored in law’ and believed that their salvation depended upon how well they kept the law. So, one of them, described as a scholar of the Law, ie a lawyer, asked Jesus ‘which commandment in the law is the greatest’. Jesus responded by quoting from Deut 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’’ These laws, as indicated by Jesus when he said, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’, effectively sum up the entire law of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The second reason why the law of love is a royal law is because it is the law by which the king lives and acts.
We are told in scripture that God is love, and everything that he does is according to the divine law of love. He created this universe with every part of it proclaiming his loving kindness towards the happiness of us, his creatures. And he has enabled us to enjoy its pleasures. We have, for example, the sense of taste with the countless flavours that we enjoy; and we have the beauty of God’s creation, the flowers, the beauty of the sunset, art, humour, etc. So, the law of love is the law of creation and God’s creation proclaims that God himself is ruled by his own law of love.
The Father’s love led to him reaching out to us in grace with the blessing of the gospel and the gift of his Son and the Holy Spirit. We also know that Jesus lived by this law. We have his example: his unselfishness, and his constant ministry, in love, to others – particularly those most in need – the poor and the oppressed.
This is agape, a sacrificial form of love that fully recognises the shortcomings in others (such as the poor person in dirty clothes who walked into the church in James’ example); yet nevertheless, leads to unselfish giving and ensuring the well-being of the other.
This sacrificial love was expressed by Chrissy - age 6, who said, “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your hot chips without making them give you any of theirs.” It is also the love expressed by Terri - age 4 who said, “Love is what makes you smile when you're tired.” And, it is the sacrificial love that Jesus displayed when he willingly suffered and died for you and me.
So, the law of love is a royal law - it is the law of the kingdom, and the law by which the king acts. But at the same time, this is not a law that only has meaning in theology textbooks. It is a law that is meant to provide guidance for our day-to-day living in a very real and practical manner. And, it is not optional! The Christian is commanded to live it daily, and Jesus sees it as the greatest commandment - ‘Love your neighbour …’
Yet many of us struggle with it. How do we love our neighbour – what do we actually have to do in order to love our neighbour? Well, fortunately, we have in the Book of James some practical advice on how to apply this commandment, because the second feature of the law of love is that …
II. The law of love is a practical law.
1. The law of love applies to the social questions of life.
The wisdom of the world encourages us to seek power, prestige and wealth. This arises from the self-centred nature of the natural person living for themselves, rather than for Christ. A person living this way will be more interested in what they can get out of a situation. While on the surface they may seem to be making a contribution to their community, their motive is to obtain some reward for their own gratification.
For example, in James’ parable – the rich person is perceived as being more likely to reward us, even if in intangible ways, if we show them favour. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the poor person will provide us with some reward. And so, we tend to look down upon the poor and show favour to the rich.
But, the law of love encourages us to show respect and honour towards all people. It encourages us to see people as God’s creation – each person loved and valued by him as his child. So, we are to love everyone as God loves them, and particularly to offer care and attention to those in need regardless of their social position. If this law were to be applied, there would be no social injustices such as inequality, persecution and oppression. Such loving consideration and graciousness extended to others would negate any social differences.
Now as well as applying to the social questions of life, James indicates that …
2. The law of love prohibits judgement of one another.
Because God lives by the law of love he has shown mercy to us and offers unconditional forgiveness and acceptance to all. And because God has done that for us, we, in turn, are expected to extend the same forgiveness and acceptance to others. Clearly, the person who makes a judgement about the value of the poor person compared with the rich person is not doing this.
Not only are we not following God’s example of extending the mercy to others that God has extended to us, but, whenever we judge another, we are usurping Christ’s authority. We are not to judge others – Jesus will do the judging when he comes again. If I judge another, then I have effectively pushed Christ aside and said that I will take his authority away from him and assume it myself.
Could you imagine walking into the High Court of Australia and telling the judge that he can go home because you will judge the case? Yet, that is exactly what we do when we choose to judge or find fault in our neighbour, rather than loving our neighbour.
So, to practically apply the command to ‘love our neighbour …’ we must resolve, by God’s grace, that we will not judge, and if we cannot speak well of one another, then we will at least not speak ill of one another.
Now there is a third application of this law of love and that is that because it is a practical law, …
3. The law of love is meant to be worked out in practical help.
I sometimes hear a theological view that the only thing that matters is to save a sinner’s soul – i.e. get them to confess Christ as Lord, and let’s not worry about whether they have bread on the table for their next meal! But this is to misunderstand the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to ignore James’ discussion on faith and works in verses 14-26.
Of course, the opposite extreme view that salvation can be achieved by doing good works alone is also not correct. Yet, many in our community today still seem to believe this! They maintain that as long as they live good lives, and don’t do anyone harm, then they will be OK with God. And so they see no reason to include Jesus in their lives. They ignore the doctrine of ‘salvation by faith and not by works’ derived from the Bible and expressed in the Anglican Church’s 11th and 13th Articles of Religion (which you will find in the back of your Prayer Book).
So, how then does it work? Well, James’ explanation (which by the way is reflected in the 12th Article of Religion) goes like this:
If we love God and put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then we receive salvation and the Holy Spirit. Having received Jesus and the Holy Spirit we are then inspired to live by Jesus’ example of love: extending care and compassion to those in need – particularly the sick, the poor, the oppressed and those suffering abuse.
Whilst we understand that we do not achieve salvation by doing good works, but rather through faith, the doing of good works is an expected outcome and desire from having received salvation. In other words, our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit leads us to desire to ‘love our neighbour …’ in a practical way just as Jesus did.
So now let us return to James’ opening statement, because I trust that now we will be able to understand what he was on about when he said, ‘My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?’ (2:1)
Showing favouritism is an example of not living by the commandment to ‘love our neighbour …’ This commandment is a royal law in that it is the law of God’s kingdom, and the law by which God and Jesus acts.
It is a law that is meant to be lived out in a practical way such that we give honour to Jesus by living according to the things that he saw as important and that he demonstrated by his own example.
Those living by the law of love are seeking to see people as God sees them, and to treat them as Jesus would treat them. They would seek social justice, not judge others, and seek to provide practical help and support to those in need. In this way they honour God and demonstrate that they accept Jesus as Lord in their lives.
On the other hand if we reject something that is part of who and what Jesus is and choose to not follow his example, then one would have to ask, as James did, “Are you really a follower of Christ?”
So, “What it all comes to is this: Keep the royal law!” The royal law is the law of love: ‘… love your neighbour’. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss-born American psychiatrist, wrote, ‘If we make our goal to live a life of compassion and unconditional love, then the world will indeed become a garden where all kinds of flowers can bloom and grow.’