In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked, “Which is the most important commandment?” and he answered, “Easy: First, love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Second, love others as you love yourself—or like you would want to be loved.” And in those two commandments, he summed up all 613 of the Old Testament laws.
So when James begins to call out people in their sin (something he seems to enjoy doing), he goes back to what Jesus said. James says they’ve broken the second commandment. In essence, he points out, “You treat someone differently because of how they look or how much money they have, but you wouldn’t do that to yourself.”
He doesn’t stop there though. (Like I said, he likes to lay it on thick.) He goes on, saying,
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10–11 ESV)
Here’s the logic: If a man on trial for murder said to the court, “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve never committed adultery, so you should go easy on me,” how do you think the judge would react? He’d say, “Um, that’s great—but who cares? We’re all glad you kept that law. But the essence of our laws—that you respect the property and the lives of others—you have utterly disregarded!” It’s not any good to say you didn’t break Law X when you’re on trial for Law Y, especially when Law Y is more important.
James says the same thing to those showing partiality or prejudice in the church: We cannot claim to keep God’s laws and continually break his greatest commandment. Who cares if we keep the lesser commandments while we break one of the two most important commands?
So what if we avoid orgies of sex if we foster orgies of anger and suspicion and racism around our dinner tables? So what if we have our families in church every Sunday if we despise the people there or look with prejudice at those in our community? I’m not saying obedience in the former things doesn’t matter. I’m just saying (like James does) that we just can’t skip the basics. Loving our neighbor isn’t varsity Christianity; it’s Christianity 101.
A lot of churches that claim to represent Jesus the most in our country don’t actually represent him at all. They have bumper stickers that say “family values” but practice no “gospel values” in their homes. Reflect on the fact that churches with crosses on the top and “Jesus saves” on the billboard might not really welcome Jesus if he actually showed up. Jesus talked a lot about loving the refugee and the outcast. For crying out loud, he was a refugee and an outcast.
Tony Evans says,
Maybe the reason we haven’t solved the race problem is that we haven’t put it on par with murder. But King Jesus is the one who said, “Love like you’ve been loved.” The same one who said, “Do not murder” said, “Receive like you’ve been received,” and if you’re racist you’re definitely not doing that.
Looking down on someone for any superficial reason or treating them with any less respect because of something they are (or are not) is a sin. That means if Michael Jordan, Joe Biden, Taylor Swift, and Nicolas Cage all walked into a church at the same time as a homeless man, all of them had better receive the exact same welcome.
What matters is that we are each made in the image of God and purchased by the blood of Christ. Nothing else matters. That’s where our dignity comes from. That’s why we love one another.