Jesus summed up the way his followers should live in a twofold love commandment: Love God with the entirety of your being; love your neighbor as yourself. The first love begets the second love. The second love reflects and expresses the authenticity of the first love.
James assumes and applies this twofold love commandment in writing to the community of Jesus-followers in those first years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. “You believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord,” he says, “then love your neighbor as yourself.”
That sounds grand, but how do we love our neighbor as our self? James gives us one concrete, highly practical way to love our neighbor: Do not show favoritism to those who are rich in worldly terms. Success and wealth as measured in terms of our worldly culture – money, clothes, jewelry, property, popularity, physical appearance, and so on – are not God’s marks of favor. God favors those who are poor in worldly terms. He lavishes them with richness of faith – with trust, hope, and love. These are their assets. These are true riches. (Compare Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20.)
Clearly even in James’s time, so close to Jesus’ sojourn on earth, the love commandment was a challenge. When believers gathered for worship, they tended to show favor to the wealthy and disdain for the poor. James warned that this pattern of thinking and behaving contradicted the twofold love commandment of love for neighbor and love for God.
Do we show this kind of favoritism today? In what ways? Why might we do this? I suspect that we do it because – in too many ways shaped as much as by our culture as by the kingdom of God – we desire to possess the cultural marks of favor for our self. We envy worldly riches in others because we want them for our self. Consciously or unconsciously, we betray this cultural pattern of thinking and behaving when we show favoritism to those who possess worldly riches.
Yet God wants to humble us in order to exalt us with true richness – richness of trust, hope, and love in him. When we possess true riches, the riches of the kingdom, we will lavish not envy and favoritism but love on our neighbor, no matter their circumstances in worldly terms.