Jamesby Douglas Estes
Again James seeks to build a close rapport with his audience, writing to them to ″listen″ and calling them ″dear brothers and sisters″ (James 2:5; see also v. 1). He then continues his discussion on how to treat rich and poor with a series of four questions (vv. 5-7).
In the oral culture of James' time, ancient writers frequently put sets of questions like these to audiences. We may be tempted to skip the multiple questions, but James asks us to consider each one in our hearts. Be forewarned: James is not asking us these questions in a neutral way. Instead, he is using an ancient style of rhetoric to encourage us to agree.
In the first question, James wants us to consider whether or not God has chosen the poor to be ″rich in faith″ and to ″inherit the kingdom″ (v. 5; see Matthew 5:3). While this reflects Jesus' teaching, we still may ask: Why do the poor merit such value in the eyes of God? Practically speaking, people who are materially poor tend to have fewer distractions and a greater need to rely on God (see Matthew 19:24). In some ways, poverty can be good for the soul.
After this question, James interjects with, ″But you have dishonoured the poor″ (James 2:6). This short clause notes that when we show favouritism, we dishonour those who have found favour with God. There is a twist here: in the first half of verse 6, James refers to ″you″ as the one dishonouring the poor (such as making them stand in the back); but in the second half of verse 6, he asks his readers to consider whether or not the rich are hurting ″you″. Is James saying that his readers mistreat the poor even though they are poor themselves? How ironic, if believers who are poor hurt other poor people!
In the early Christian world, ″poor″ and ″rich″ often took on meanings beyond the simple measure of material wealth. Rich meant ″honoured″, though it also implied being corrupt. Conversely, poor not only meant ″no money″, but also meant ″dishonourable and despised″, and in some cases could even imply freedom from corrupt society. Many early Christians lacked money, but all wanted to avoid worldly corruption. Therefore, all believers are to avoid dishonouring the poor through their cultural attitudes towards poverty and wealth.
Questions two through four are closely tied together (vv. 6-7). Their goal is to push us into seeing the error of our actions. In the ancient world, the rich often treated the poor cruelly, and most believers at that time were poor. Therefore, whether rich or poor, believers cannot accept the way society treats the poor.
Whether we are ourselves poor or rich, we should strive to treat each other equally and see the value in all people. This value does not come from within; it comes from our Creator, the God who gives us life, hope, and wisdom. We love others because He created others in His image (Genesis 1:27).
How does the way we are treated by those wealthier and more powerful than us shape the way we see our world? When we see injustice, how should we respond?
How can we better minister to those in our community who are in need?