Most cultures assume that richer people are wiser, and therefore better or even closer to God, but that was not what Jesus taught. He ranked the poor widow's offering as greater than the larger amount from a rich person (Luke 21:4), and was disappointed with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-26). But the Early Church tended to revert to worldly standards: they would give special honour to important people and fail to respect the poor. James knew that this was wrong, for several reasons.
All Christians are equal before God; women are not inferior to men, and slaves are not inferior to their masters - in God's eyes (Galatians 3:28). That is because every Christian is equally a sinner: many sins or few sins makes no difference, all have sinned and equally fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23). Through the sacrifice of Jesus, all who trust in Him are equally saved by God's grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are equals as children of God (Acts 2:44-47), and God has no favourites because nobody is saved by their money (1 Peter 1:17-19).
This passage reminds the poor that they have wonderful riches in heaven because of Jesus, and meanwhile they are seen by Him as His brothers (Hebrews 2:11) as well as His servants (1 Peter 2:16). Those who are rich are reminded that they are mortal and can take none of their riches with them (Luke 12:20). Like everybody, the wealthy have no greater life span: they will wither under the heat of the sun, like a flower with transient beauty. We have seen it - apply enough pressure to the financial markets or business sectors, and even the most successful person can be humbled; or ill health can rob him or her of the ability to enjoy what has been gained. Ultimately, we all come into the world with nothing; and however rich we become, we go out with no material possessions at all (1 Timothy 6:7).
Rather than honour some people more than others, James instructs us to give everybody the same great honour - irrespective of their position in society (James 2:1-13). It should be easy to practise this at work: pray about your workers and colleagues as precious people whom God has made and are accountable to Him. Take time to treat cleaners and messengers with as much honour as you treat your management. If you are in a senior role, do not despise those who are beneath you because Your Father loves them. Indeed, those with a high salary are in the best position to give to those who have need (Romans 12:8); which is what Jesus did for you (2 Corinthians 8:9). True Christian faith is better seen by generously respecting the poor than arrogantly assuming they are inferior. And every humble Christian should be confident of God's loving provision. If we live today in the light of meeting Jesus soon, it will help us to get these proud, impatient attitudes of rank, wealth and status into perspective (James 5:8).
© Dr Paul Adams