The Law of Love

The Law of Love

This past Wednesday I began a new semester of teaching theology and one of the things I try to emphasize to my students is that though we may not all worship in the same traditions or be involved with the same denominations, nonetheless we are all called to be united in Christ. And one of the ways in which we can be united is by majoring in the majors, i.e., emphasizing those teachings which Scripture emphasizes and giving each other a lot of latitude in those areas that are less clear. Well, loving your neighbor is one of the teachings that God in his Word presents to us again—and again—and again—and again. It’s emphasized in the Old Testament; it’s emphasized in the New Testament. So we would do well to do all we can to put this teaching into practice.

In our passage this morning James builds up to this teaching arriving in verse 8 to what he refers to as the royal law of love. He begins in verse 1 by stating, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” Now James isn’t simply offering his advice or opinion here for he goes on to say in verse 9 that favoritism is a sin—it’s a violation of God’s commandment for those who are his. Therefore believers in and followers of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not give “unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.” Sadly, our default position is to play favorites. Too often we play favorites by honoring those who are wealthy or treating them with more respect than we do others. A recent example from the news illustrates this. I don’t know about you, but I was heartbroken to learn that Bill Cosby, creator of one of the most wholesome, enjoyable, morally positive comedy series was himself far less than moral in his personal treatment of women. But the example I want to use comes from one of the actors on The Cosby Show, Geoffrey Owens, who from 1985–92 played Elvin Tibideaux, a young man who married Sondra, one of Cliff and Clare Huxtable’s daughters in the series. Now when Mr. Owens was on this popular show, I imagine many would have been star-struck had they seen him in a restaurant or some other public place. But recently Mr. Owens went through what’s being referred to as “job shaming” when a British tabloid, The Daily Mail, posted a photo of him working as a check-out clerk at a Trader Joe’s. As is the case with most people, Mr. Owens has put on some weight since his Cosby days. And despite the fact that he was doing honorable work, many people—who at one time would no doubt have been among the star-struck—felt it their job to criticize Mr. Owens essentially for no longer being a movie star (although, I should add, that many have also come to his defense). Now though I would hope that we as Christ’s followers wouldn’t look down upon Mr. Owens, it’s worth asking ourselves: If he were to have entered our worship service this morning, looking rather shabby and unshaven, would we treat him the same as when he starred on The Cosby Show? If we didn’t, then we’d be guilty of committing the sin of favoritism. And this is precisely what James is writing against.

Starting in verse 2 James provides just such an example that no doubt arose from his own context of worship: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” As we also saw last week, James continues to highlight Scripture’s teaching on caring for the poor. Last week we saw him define “pure and faultless religion” as being that which “looks after orphans and widows” and keeps itself “from being polluted by the world.”[1] And we take his point in what he states here in chapter 2, don’t we? James challenges us to ask ourselves:

Are we those who treat those who are rich better than we treat those who are poor?

Are we more patient with the rich?

Are we kinder to them?

Do we look up to them?

Do we praise them?


Do we look down upon the poor?

Do we blame them for their poverty?

Do we consider ourselves better than they?

Scripture warns against—and prohibits—such favoritism. And, again, what is striking here is that these things are occurring within the context of worship, a time when we all should equally acknowledge our need before God as well as our kinship with one another for we are all children of our heavenly Father, siblings to one another. But because we don’t automatically see this, we need to be taught that because God values all people and has made all people in his image, we need to value all people. We need to treat all people with dignity and kindness and respect. And if we don’t, then we’re not living as God in Christ calls his followers to live. Sadly it’s all too common and therefore can feel all too natural for those of us living in these materially prosperous United States to assume that rich = good and poor = bad. But apparently it was all too common and natural in the Ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament and the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament to feel this way as well. For the Scriptures ever exhort us to live according to the values and will of the God who made us all—and this includes treating all people with the value, worth, and dignity with which they’ve been endowed by our gracious God and Maker.

James reminds his audience about how different God’s values are starting in verse 5: “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James echoes here the teaching of his half-brother, Jesus:

As told by Matthew, in his Sermon the Mount Jesus taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[2]

But in his Gospel, Luke states that Jesus taught, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[3]

I think that one way of making sense of this variation is to understand that poverty—experiencing a deep lack in our lives—can be the cause of our turning to God. So we may have all of the material comforts we could want, but if we don’t know God in Christ—if we are poor in spirit—we may yet experience a lack of purpose and meaning in life and so seek him out (which, by the way, was what the first Alpha class spoke about this past week); but so, too if we are lacking in the basic material comforts and needs of life, our physical circumstances may similarly cause us to turn to God in Christ. The reason is because this is how God designed us. Because he made us in his image, because God made us for himself, he desires us to look to him, to be dependent upon him, to have a relationship with him so that we are ever aware of and talking with him as we live out our lives. And this dependency, this need for him, exists at both the spiritual and material level. For ultimately our access to God isn’t dependent upon our self-sufficiency but just the opposite. When we realize and acknowledge our neediness, whether that need is spiritual, material, or both, is often when we open the door to God and so are enabled by him to become rich in him. Again, as James states, “God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him.” In other words, turning to God and becoming part of his kingdom requires us to acknowledge our need for God as we thereby turn to him. Sisters and brothers, because we love Christ, we are rich indeed—rich in faith and members of his eternal kingdom—and we should never forget this!

But the believers to whom James was writing seemed to have forgotten this basic truth for they were showing favoritism to the rich over against the poor. This is the problem James addresses head-on starting in verse 6: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” The messed-up priorities and worldly values held by these believers was causing them to behave in a manner that was inconsistent with their profession of faith in Christ. For despite the fact that it was the rich who were abusing them—exploiting them, dragging them into court, and even blaspheming against the name of Christ—these believers were nonetheless treating the rich in a preferential manner and, to make matters worse, they were dishonoring the poor. We humans are so bad at judging rightly, aren’t we? We too often associate superficial matters with matters of consequence. Therefore,

we assume that because people are rich, they must be worthy of better treatment;

we treat those who are endowed with physical beauty better than those we consider less beautiful;

we assume thin people are better than those who aren’t;

and that non-smokers have better character than smokers;

and that people without tattoos or body-piercing are more respectable than those with them.

These are but a sampling of ways in which we assume we know people well when what we’ve really done is taken one external trait and made a determination of character based on that one trait. This tendency is why—against all reason for the rich among them were abusing them—the believers to whom James was writing were showing a preference, even during the time of worship, to the rich who were exploiting them.

But, again, these believers weren’t merely paying homage to the rich but they were also dishonoring the poor whose greatest crime was that they had little money or possessions. So James felt obligated to confront these brothers and sisters, fellow believers in and followers of Jesus Christ, as he called upon them to change their behavior. And he does so not merely by using rational arguments and examples but first and foremost by drawing from Scripture. In verse 8 James refers to “the royal law found in Scripture” which is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He reminds these siblings in Christ that if they keep this divine royal law, then they are doing right. Now we tend to think of these words as coming from Jesus—and we are correct for James is saying nothing other than what Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable it was the Samaritan—a member of a group despised by the religious—who acted rightly, caring for the man who had been beaten when others who should have known better, religious leaders, turned away from him.[4] But both James and Jesus were drawing their teaching from the Scriptures they had been given by God, our Old Testament. For we first find this teaching in Leviticus 19:18 which states, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Therefore this command comes from none other than God himself. And, in case these believers missed the connection this command had to their current situation, having presented God’s royal law to love—it’s a royal law for God is our sovereign King—James states in verse 9, “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, if we don’t love all people as God has called us to love, then we are sinning; we are breaking God’s law; we’re not living in the manner that God calls his children to live. This is a serious matter.

We don’t usually think this way about love, do we? It’s often said, “You can’t legislate morality” and we all understand what’s behind this. We can’t change people’s hearts or make them hold to high principles of proper conduct that they may not believe in or personally hold. But guess what? Scripture says God can and does legislate morality and James brings this out by juxtaposing God’s royal law with love. So even if we don’t feel love towards someone, we are nonetheless called to act in a loving manner in how we treat one another. Though human law exists so that societies may live peaceably with each other, God’s law demands more for God wants us to intentionally live and behave in a manner that testifies to our love for him and others. God in Scripture reminds us that love is both a noun and a verb: it describes his being and activity toward his creation and therefore that part of his creation that bears his image—namely, us!—should similarly be marked by love in our being and activity towards others. Again, God’s law is given for our good that we might live in the way that he designed us to live, loving him with the totality of our being and loving each other as ourselves.[5]

Though James has identified a particular sin that was prevalent among these believers, he goes on to point out in verse 10 that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James is again echoing Jesus’ teaching who taught,

17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[6]

Brothers and sisters, this is how we can all be assured that we all need Christ. So perhaps we don’t personally struggle with favoritism but have been intentional about treating all people with the respect and dignity that God’s image-bearers deserve. That’s all well and good. But as James goes on to illustrate in verse 11, genuinely living as God made and calls us to live demands complete and entire holiness in all areas of our lives. So if we have not committed adultery but have committed murder, we are lawbreakers. Paul states almost the same exact thing in his letter to Romans: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”[7] Now recall that last week we saw that one of the purposes of God’s Word is to act as a mirror to our lives. And as we read and study who God is and what he expects of those who have committed their lives to him, we quickly realize that the only person who has ever lived and has managed to keep the entirety of God’s law was Jesus Christ. Everyone else has broken the law at some point—and probably many at many points—over the course of their lives. Therefore everyone who has ever lived is in need of God to save them from hurting others and hurting themselves.

In verse 12 James underscores another point, also touched upon last week, namely that the law gives freedom for the law teaches how we have been made to live. And, again, the way we were made to live is to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. And because we don’t know this of our own fallen nature, we need God to show it to us and to help us by his Word, his Spirit, and each other to help us live it out. So though the law shows us our lack—how far we’ve fallen short from being the people God desires us to be—in the end the law is our friend for when we see our need, we are able to turn to God as we seek him and so receive his help and forgiveness. As James notes at the end of verse 13, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Therefore we’re to show the same mercy to others that we receive when we turn to God in our need.

James circles back to the importance of having our words and deeds line up in verse 14. For we’re not simply called to talk the talk, but we’re also called to walk the walk. Or, in James’ words, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” Talk is cheap whereas living in a manner that is consistent with the values we claim to hold is difficult. It isn’t enough to say, “Yes, I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ.” Rather, if we do make this profession of faith, it should be evident in how we live our lives. It should be evident in how we view our lives. Not surprisingly, the example James chose to illustrate this is the one with which he began the chapter, treatment of the poor. For again, these believers, in showing favoritism towards the rich among them, were neglecting the poor. So James states in verses 15–16: “15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’” The answer to this not-too-rhetorical question is obvious: Faith that merely expresses good will is no good at all because it doesn’t act on the good it is willing. The apostle John says the very same thing in his epistle, “16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”[8] James similarly concludes in verse 17, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

In presenting this teaching on the royal law of love, I believe James is teaching us what it means to be a Christian. James is majoring in the majors of our faith as he emphasizes that belief in Jesus as the Christ, belief that Jesus is God’s promised Messiah, should result in living our lives as he lived his. So how did Jesus live his life? Jesus cared for all people. He spent time with the despised in society—the “tax collectors and sinners”[9]and he similarly reached out to those who were well off—the rich young ruler[10] and the Roman centurion whose servant was sick.[11] As just read from John’s epistle, no one knew how to demonstrate love better than Jesus for he died that by taking our death upon himself, he might give us his eternal life in himself. The apostle Paul also uses the language of wealth and poverty in stating, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”[12] Though God’s Christ, his Messiah, his eternal Son didn’t have to leave the riches of heaven to take on human form to save those whom he had made in his image, he chose to become poor as we are poor that we might know the riches of knowing his love and knowing and loving him in return.[13]

Dear brothers and sisters, may we similarly live out God’s Royal Law of love;

May we similarly learn to extend God’s love not only to those whom we like, those with whom we have a natural affinity, those to whom we are immediately drawn but let us also show God’s love to those we don’t always think about.

Let us not commit the sin of favoritism but instead, by his Spirit’s empowering, let us live out the royal law of love, the law of Jesus our King, and thereby show that we are in deed and in truth children of our heavenly Father.[14]

Let us pray.


[1] James 1:27.

[2] Matthew 5:3.

[3] Luke 6:20.

[4] Luke 10:25–37: 25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

[5] Matthew 22:34–40:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” and Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

[6] Matthew 5:17–19.

[7] Romans 8:8–10.

[8] 1 John 3:16–18.

[9] See, for example, Matthew 9:10: While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.; Mark 2:15: While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.; Luke 5:29–30: 29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

[10] Matthew 19:16–22; Mark 10:17–27; Luke 18:18-23.

[11] Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10.

[12] 2 Corinthians 8:9.

[13] See also Philippians 2:3–11:Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

[14] Acts 10:34: Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.

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