“Mercy Triumphs over Judgment”
April 19, 2020 – Evening Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
2:8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 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. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Many of you will remember one of the first stories of religious social distancing in the Bible. It is the story of a man who physically steps away from others, as if, by association with them, he would become unclean.
Peter, a Jew, was eating a meal with Gentile believers in Antioch. Everything seems to be going well, until, suddenly, some Jews from the religious group of the “circumcision” arrive. We picture Peter quickly getting up from his place at the table with the Gentiles, physically drawing back and distancing himself from the Gentile believers, in order to not be associated with them.
It is one of those passages that I really don’t like to read. Peter here does the unspeakable. He discriminates against this group he had been eating with, abandoning what he knew to be true about them, and, wanting to “fit in” with a religious group, he distances himself from a group of Gentile believers. What a slap in the face that must have been for those people eating with Peter. Gentile believers, heirs of God, rejected by Peter, because somehow he saw them as inferior to him.
If you remember this passage, you also know that Paul confronted Peter to his face and rebuked him for his hypocritical behavior. He was ashamed at Peter’s conduct, because he had dishonored the Gentiles and was being partial to a group of religious people that he thought were superior to them.
Though that account comes from Paul’s letter written to the Galatian church, it is helpful in illustrating what James is teaching in the passage we are studying this evening.
You see, as Christians, we can be guilty of favoring certain people over others, and just like Paul rebuked Peter, James is here to rebuke the rest of us. He is here to call us to examine our hearts and see if there is any way that we, ourselves, might be guilty of a similar behavior.
I come from a culture that speaks through illustrations and examples. And as we’ve read through James, it has become apparent that he is a master of illustrations.
He begins this section with such an example, having us imagine a scenario where a rich and a poor person come into our assembly. So just picture that. Picture two people coming to church for the first time. One sits near the front, the other in the back, under the balcony.
The rich man comes in with fine clothing and a nice gold ring, but the poor man comes in wearing shabby clothing.
James asks the hypothetical: How would you treat them? When they walk in, what is your gut reaction, and how do you respond to this person?
Do you get up and head over to the rich person and give him preference of your time and attention while bypassing the poor person and intentionally avoiding him?
I assume most of us would be appalled at that kind of behavior. This scenario that James paints is one that makes us uncomfortable.
Of course we wouldn’t give someone preference just because they have nicer clothing. We are an educated people. We are mature—and, more than that, we are a church that knows we are all made in the image of God. We don’t care how people are dressed or how much money they have. We would treat everyone equally.
And I think that would generally be true of our church. We don’t push people aside because of their income, or because of their clothing. Could it be an issue in our church? Perhaps.
And if so, we should definitely grow in that. All that we have has been given to us by God, so there is no reason to show distinctions based on financial income. At the end of the day, those things don’t really matter.
And at the same time, I don’t believe that James is targeting the issue of how we treat the financially wealthy or poor. I believe he is using a very simple and common issue as an example to illustrate the much deeper issue that is more pervasive in the church. And that is the issue of treating some people with preference and some with condescension.
The more we study Scriptures, the more we will find that examples highlighting wealth and poverty have less to do with actual finances, as much as they are focusing on heart issues.
Just as a brief aside, if you are not too convinced, let me give you another Scriptural example that demonstrates this distinction clearly. Listen to how Jesus speaks to the churches in Revelation.
In Rev. 2, Jesus tells the church in Smyrna, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.” Then he says, “but in fact you are rich,” and proceeds to encourage them. Here the people of Smyrna think they are nothing. They think they are poor. But Jesus says that, in fact, they are rich.
But in Rev. 3, he condemns the church of Laodicea with anger because they say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” But he says that, in fact, they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Just in these two brief sections, we see Jesus refuting these two churches, not because of their economic giving or status, but because of how they view themselves. One thinks they are poor, while in fact they are rich in Christ. The other thinks they are rich in themselves, but he says they are poor and pitiable.
In James, “the rich man” and “the poor man” are symbols that represent how we see the people in the church. We respect certain people because we think they “are rich” or we disrespect certain people because we see them as “poor”.
These are general example placeholders meant to help you understand your own sins of partiality and how you can deal with your particular struggle in a specific way.
So let’s take up his example again and add a little more to it. What makes us think someone is rich?
A rich man (or family) walks into our church. You can almost picture this man, he arrives 15 minutes early, with his slick suit and perfectly tied tie. Everything about this figure represents all that we want to be, humanly and spiritually speaking. He has done well for himself. He has wealth, he is intelligent, he is successful. His piety is an example for all of us. His marriage is perfect, his children well behaved and respectful. He gives generously and sings beautifully. He is self-disciplined, likeable, and even has one of those nice goatskin leather bibles with underlined portions of Scripture on every page. His life is in order and we all want to be like him.
The poor man, though, is that poor soul that arrives late to church with his kids who can’t stop fidgeting. He appears undisciplined and unintelligent; his marriage is clearly struggling, and he isn’t 100% certain of what he believes doctrinally. He is not an example of piety as you see him lose his temper or you catch him roll his eyes at his wife. You notice that one of his kids has been missing “in the bathroom,” roaming the halls instead of sitting with them in church. You can tell he has lived a long life, full of struggles. He sings way too loudly and off-key, and he definitely doesn’t have the words to the Nicene Creed memorized. When the offering plate comes around, he puts in a few wrinkled dollar bills. His clothes are nice enough, but they leave something to be desired. He should probably join some discipleship group, and definitely needs to stop reading his Bible on his phone! We really don’t know a lot about him, or the struggles he has faced in life or even that morning, but we absolutely know that we don’t want to be like him.
After all, we are mature Christians and we are Presbyterians. We have our act together!
Though I am attempting to mix in some humor in those descriptions, I don’t think it is hard for us to think of a few people in church who might fit into these two categories. In fact, you can probably think of specific people as I mention some of those examples. It is not hard to do. We all do it in some form or another.
The big problem with this, however, is that when we make these mental distinctions in our hearts, we place ourselves as judges.
See v. 4. “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
I am tempted to think, this is not that big a deal, and I would honestly probably struggle calling you out on this one-on-one. But James doesn’t see it that way. He sees this type of thinking as evil thinking, judging. And he calls that dishonoring.
You see, what James is communicating here is that, within the church, we have a tendency to want to size people up. We size ourselves up and we rank ourselves among those who are around us. No, we don’t have an Excel sheet that awards points and ranks to people in the church, but, in our hearts, we look at our brothers and sisters at FPC and at other churches and we size them up.
We calculate their holiness in a split second based on clothing, status, intelligence, eloquence, behavior, timeliness, attendance and much more. We do the math on their status in the church and before God based on the things we can observe.
If we know someone whose marriage is struggling or “on the rocks” or that is somehow worse than ours, then we consider them “poor.” If someone’s children aren’t what we expect them to be, we assign them a ranking beneath our own.
James says that, when we do this, we act in an evil manner. It is as if we consider our place before God to be better than some (the poor), but not as good as others (the rich), and we give preference and partiality to that “rich person.”
We gravitate to those who give off the vibe that they are mature and prosperous, spiritually speaking, when in all actuality, it is those “rich people” that Jesus condemned as actually being so far off-target. He said that they were poor, blind, and naked.
If we would gravitate toward anyone, it should be the “poor in spirit,” for they will inherit the kingdom of God. It is these—those whom Jesus says have gone through tribulation and suffering, who have endured the struggles of life and appear unprosperous, who indeed appear blind and pitiable—it is these that are the truly rich.
So those we judge for struggling with life’s issues might be the ones who are actually doing things rightly. The ones who are being refined by fire and being reproved and disciplined and being tested are the ones who God loves. For he disciplines those he loves.
While you might be tempted to think that I’m saying your life needs to be a mess to be a good Christian, just stop it. That is not what I’m saying.
What I’m saying is (well, what James is saying is) that we are not to judge anyone with our evil thoughts. Judging people based on your split-second evaluations and impressions and ranking them and ranking yourself and showing partiality is evil and it is legalistic.
How is judging legalistic?
You see, when we judge people and rank people, we set up a standard of righteousness that we think is acceptable. Together with those we consider “rich” in the faith, we set up these standards and we judge people according to them. We set up our own righteousness, and we judge others accordingly.
But what we have forgotten, is that when we rank people, and set up that standard of righteousness, we are acting like our sin or struggle is somehow less sinful than someone else’s.
That is why James brings up the second greatest commandment here. He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He mentions this second greatest commandment here because he is showing us that being partial, discriminating against others, and judging them is not loving.
It is saying, “You are not worthy of my time.” It is saying, “I am better than you.” It is saying, “You disgust me with your sins. I’m not going to spend time with you, and I’m going to keep you at a distance because there are ‘acceptable sins’ and then there are ‘your sins.’ Until you can change, you don’t belong in my circle.”
When we say this, Scripture says we are committing sin and therefore are convicted by the law as transgressors.
For whoever does everything right in their life and lives a good Christian life, but then breaks the law at just one point, is accountable for all of it.
For the same God who says “Do not commit adultery” ALSO said “Do not murder,” and the same God who said “Do not murder” also said “Do not hate” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
If you have not committed adultery, or murdered, or been guilty of some other dishonorable sin, but you have despised someone at church for their weaker faith, or weaker holiness, you have sinned. And, according to James, “you have sinned against God.” You have become a transgressor of the law.
If you have not stolen, lied, cheated, or sinned in grievous ways, and you have been a regular attender at FPC, a shining example of piety and faithfulness, but you have broken the law by judging someone who has, you are a transgressor of the law. You have sinned before God.
If you break only one aspect of the law, you are therefore condemned for breaking all of it.
If I shoot a BB gun through a glass window and it is cracked but not in pieces, how many of you would say I broke the glass? Everyone.
But what if my brother Caleb threw a rock at that window and it completely shattered? We’d be tempted to think he is more guilty.
But it doesn’t work that way. You break one part of the law, you’ve broken it all.
What that means for you and me is that we are just as condemned as the next guy that we are judging as being inferior to us.
No matter how you size up your sins, before God’s law, we are all equally lost in our transgressions and sins.
We’re all in the same boat
There is a ferry not far from where we live that takes people over to Vashon Island. I don’t know how many of you know how ferries work, but much like any other boat, everyone on the boat arrives at to the destination at the same time and departs at the same time.
It doesn’t matter if you are in the front of the boat or in the back of the boat or in the middle of the boat—if it sinks, you all sink. If it departs, you all depart, and when it arrives, everyone arrives. If the boat was sinking, would your position on the boat matter all that much?
So it is when you look at someone else’s sin and you think yours is less serious than his. So you put yourself in the front of the boat. It makes no difference how you categorize and rank yourself in the boat, but you are all in the same boat.
That is our situation before God’s law. We are all in the same boat. We are all condemned because there is no one righteous, not even one. Our good deeds are like filthy rags before God.
We are all naked and poor and pitiable. Every day we need to repent of our sins. Not one of us is better than the other.
And to think higher of ourselves than of our neighbor is to say that we believe somehow that our self-made righteousness is better than his self-made righteousness.
So at the end of the day, we are now basing our status (our “wealth,” spiritually speaking) on our own self-made righteousness.
This is the blasphemy that James is talking about in v. 7. The people who oppress others and bring them up on trial for their sins are blaspheming the honorable name by which you were called.
You see, that is the key. You were not called by your honorable name. You were called on behalf of the honorable name of Jesus. You were called to be God’s heirs, God’s chosen ones, because of Jesus’ name, not yours. Because of Jesus’ righteousness, not yours!
If you start acting like your self-made spirituality is better than someone else’s, you are saying you have something to offer. You are saying you didn’t really need Jesus’ righteousness, because you are in pretty good shape.
Blasphemy! Says James.
You are a sinner in the same boat as the person next to you. Your jockeying for position in that boat only serves to dishonor the brother whom God has chosen to love because of Jesus’ righteousness, and whom he has made an heir of his kingdom.
If you want to do things based on your personal righteousness, then buckle up, because “judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.”
In other words, if you live your life and judge others as if you are better than others, then you are subjecting yourself to the law. If you subject yourself to the law, know that you will have no mercy.
You do not want this, brothers and sisters. If you plan to stand before God on judgment day based on your righteousness, then by all means, continue to measure other people up and compare your sins to theirs. Show them no mercy…drag their sins in front of their faces. Put them on trial in front of others. Just remember that you will need to stand trial for your sins as well.
And just as you have shown no grace or mercy to your fellow brother or sister in need, in their moment of trial and desperation, but have stood in judgment over them by avoiding and condemning them in your heart, you will be judged by God with no grace or mercy. You will be put to trial based on your self-made righteousness.
It might seem like overkill, right? Nobody wants that. No one wants to depend on their own righteousness. We all know we are sinners, so stop being so dramatic.
You see, that is the problem. We are so confident in our doctrines of “once saved, always saved,” and saved by grace through faith, we neglect to ask ourselves if our faith is real.
James doesn’t deny any one of those doctrines I’ve just mentioned. And at the same time, he doesn’t presume anyone’s faith is real. Remember, Jesus says in Rev. 2 that the Jews who thought they had a real salvation were actually a synagogue of Satan.
Could it be that we have fooled ourselves as these Jews?
James says real faith should not be assumed. Real faith is verified as real by its fruits.
So, he says, if your faith in Jesus’ righteousness is real, speak and act that way. Don’t act like your salvation depends on you. Don’t speak as if you are better than others. Don’t act as if you get to judge others for their sins and that somehow you are better than them.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, how much you have worked on your sins, and how mature you are in your faith. We are all in the same boat. If we are saved, if we are righteous, it is because of Jesus’ righteousness, and his righteousness alone.
We are all in the same boat, and we all need God’s mercy. So let us live and speak and act as those who are under the law of liberty. The law of grace and mercy.
Strive to live out your faith by showing grace, by loving your neighbor as yourself.
I’d like to conclude this message by bringing us back to Revelation 3, to Jesus’ warning. He says, “I know your works….For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent….22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Without Jesus’ righteousness, we are nothing and we have nothing. We only stand condemned. Let us be zealous and repent. May we ask Jesus to anoint our eyes so we can see that it is not our righteousness. It is his. It is not our wealth, it is his. And may we love and serve and speak and act toward those around us knowing that, without Jesus, we are poor and pitiable.
This teaching should change our faith. It should mold who we are and bring us to action, to serve those who are in trials around us, to come alongside them rather than sit back in our comfortable high horse.
It is my prayer that we might not only take our eyes off of our own righteousness and instead see Jesus’s, but that in so doing, we would love those around us with all their warts and sins and poverty. That we would come alongside and love those in need intensely, and that our love for them would be unconditional, gracious, and merciful.
For this is the very thing Jesus did for us. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Amen.