Sermon on James 2:1-13 – “The Pews are Free”

Sermon on James 2:1-13 – “The Pews are Free”

Sermon for Sunday, March 20th, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Deu 1:9-18 ESV] 9 “At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.

New Testament reading:

[Jas 2:1-13 ESV] 1 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? 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.

Gospel reading:

[Mat 5:21-28 ESV] 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


When my family and I lived in North Carolina, little did we know, that every Sunday for over two years we were sitting in someone else’s pew! Fortunately, good Christians folks as they were, they said nothing and simply sat in the next pew.

Such good welcoming attitudes have not always been the case in church history.

In fact great travesties regarding favoritism have occurred right within the churches. For example, there was a time when, in some places, tithing wasn’t very successful and churches relied on the selling of pews to pay the ministers salary. People didn’t buy the pews and take them home with them, rather it was a “pew rent.” And, if I recall the histories correctly, the wealthy often bought the pews up front where they could best hear the minister, and frankly, where they could be seen. And the poor sat in the back or perhaps in some places couldn’t even afford a seat at all!

So it is that in the old newspapers, you’ll find comments like this one about our own church:

December 18, 1916. Middletown-Times Press. Unionville Presbyterian, Rev. Joseph MacInnes, Pastor. Preaching at 11 o’clock. “Pews are free in this church and everybody welcome.”

Praise the Lord for free pews! Praise the Lord that everybody is welcome.

The Biblical way of assembling is to do so without partiality. When a church functions rightly, it is supported by its members by tithes and offerings SO THAT pews are free and all are welcome.

And, while we may gravitate to a pew and sit in the same place for years, it is not “our pew.” It is a pew of the church. And if some visitor sits in your seat, just sit in the next one.

There is no partiality to be shown in the assembly of the brethren. No seat is more honorable, no person is more valuable. No partiality is to be shown. Indeed, when it is called the “assembly of the brethren” is it not clear that all who believe in the Lord are equal, each one a brother or a sister in the same family?

Now, one more thing from the histories, regarding favoritism, and of the type called discrimination. It is from that time of the great national sin and embarrassment of our country, the time of slavery. I’ve come across at least one reference to a church that had a separate room for the slaves, so that while the pastor was preaching to one audience in front of him, the slaves were situated in a room behind or to the side of him, able to hear and see only through a small window. What horrendous mistreatment.

The better Presbyterians in those days not only welcomed all into worship but chastised masters for not teaching the Word of God to their slaves. And the good ministers sought opportunities to preach to any and all peoples, without partiality, indiscriminately.

The truth is God is not impressed by your bank account, or your clothing, or your family lineage, or the size of your house. The Lord is not glorified in our mere status, but in our spiritual fruit.

So we saw in the last section of James, a warning about hypocrisy, about those who say that they the word of God, but do not go out and DO the word of God.

Now, we find the teaching that we are to have no partiality. Not only are we to SAY that God is the creator of all men, but we are to PUT INTO ACTION the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And it is EVERY NEIGHBOR, showing NO partiality. After all, a person’s a person no matter how small.

That’s the first of three points I want to look at from our text today.

I. Show no partiality to others.

II. Judgment is the result of sinning against others.
III. Be merciful to others.

First, there is show no partiality to others.

I. Show no Partiality to others.

This means we are to treat well both the rich and the poor, the popular and unpopular, our neighbors as well as sojourners traveling through the land.

This is a common feature of Jesus’s parables – treating well ALL people. There is, of course, the parable of the Good Samaritan where a man is taken care of by someone who is, without any good reason, considered by many to be his enemy or someone lower than him and unclean. But who is unclean? Who is lower than another? For ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And if God can forgive me, this wretched sinner, how can I not treat others with the same grace and mercy?

There is also the Parable of the Wedding Feast. And this fits well with our Pew-sitting theme in that it also speaks of sitting in high places and low places.

Jesus says, in Luke chapter 14, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This shows us that not only are we to show no partiality with others, so also we are not to view ourselves as better than we are. We are not to claim a place of honor as if we were better than other people, for all the good that we have is of GOD. So we say, “if anyone should boast, let him boast of the Lord.”

Ultimately, we are not to show favoritism, we are to be no respecter of persons, because, not only is this command of God, but God himself is, as the Scriptures say, “no respecter of persons.”

– He chose not the mightiest nation to be called his people, but the lowly Israelites.

– And he has called not the wealthy, intellectual, and celebrities to be his people, but he has called the meek and lowly from every place and every walk of life to be members of his kingdom, whether rich or poor, smart or simple-minded, whether in favor of out of favor with the world.

The text focuses on impartiality in the assembly—that is, in the church—but it extends to the whole of our lives such that James says,

“If you love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

Showing partiality is a sin, make no mistake about it. It is not just improper etiquette, but it is fully a sin.

The sin of partiality arises when we seek out only connections with SOME people, but studiously avoid others.

Yes, it is easy to love our neighbor, when our neighbor benefits us in some way. But we are called to love ALL our neighbors, even the ones who are at times difficult. [REPEAT: even those who are difficult at times]

In our society, unlike the ancient world, we can’t often tell who is rich among and who is poor. That is, some rich people are frugal and live simple, while some poor people buy nice cars and nice clothing.

So favoritism, partiality, respecting of person’s in our time tends to find other routes than wealth.

And when there is someone you interact with who you find difficult (or disagreeable), what are you to do? Avoid them? I don’t think that’s the answer. At least that is not the Christian answer.

Let us strive, rather, to treat ALL neighbors in a loving way. Listen to them even though they talk to much, and about things you’re not interested in. Invite your difficult neighbor to church or to a BBQ at your house even if you think other people will not approve.

Just as we are to “pray for our enemies,” so also should we lovingly interact even with disagreeable people. That is not easy to do, I admit.

But Christ certainly interacted with difficult people. He sat with them, ate with them, was a friend to sinners. In his company, in his presence, all seats were free. He even said, “Let the little Children come to me.”

In some cultures (in places in India for example) children would never be treated that way; having a seat with adults. But Jesus welcomes them in.

II. Judgment is the result of sinning against others.

Next in our passage, we find that breaking the command against partiality is breaking the law of God, and thus being guilty of all the law.

The command is said to be the “royal law.” It is the Law of the King of Kings to love one another as you love yourself.

And how can you show partiality to one person over another if you treat EACH of them as yourself!

The rule is that any breaking of the law is a breaking of the WHOLE law. Man does not like this doctrine. They think it isn’t fair. People want it to be that only some major sins are truly deserving of God’s wrath. But the Scriptural view, through the Scriptures, is that breaking ANY law—even showing favoritism—is deserving of condemnation.

In Deuteronomy 27:26 it says “Cursed is he who fulfills not all things.”

If we fail to obey the commandments in any way, we fail to love the Lord and we deserve His wrath. We are cursed.

James speaks of the sins of murder and of adultery, but it is clear that ANY sin—including showing partiality—is a sin against GOD deserving of death and hell.

The standard is high. And no one reaches that height. We NEED the mercy of God.

Though the standard of perfection is impossible to us, it was achieved by Jesus Christ, who lived without sin, who conquered death and brought upon us the mercy of God.

III. Be Merciful to Others

So James says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” [REPEAT: Mercy triumphs over judgement.]

We know of God’s judgment, we know of God’s mercy. And, Praise the Lord, mercy triumphs over judgment. We don’t get some mercy and some judgment, we get mercy only because of Jesus Christ. We receive full mercy from the God who is full of mercy. And this is important because even the tiniest amount of God’s wrath would be too much for us to handle. But He loves us, and so gives us total mercy.

This means we should be assured that we will not have some trial at the heavenly gates. God will not review in front of us all of our sins, or have a time of purgatory to purge remaining sins. None of this. We have full mercy. Mercy which triumphs over judgement.

James’s point then is to “be merciful to others, as God has been merciful to you.”

You might say “be ye merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.”

Or, in the reverse in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

We sing in the hymn “God be merciful to me” and we know that He is. We might also sin “Let me be merciful to others.”

Conclusion – “Treat Others as He has Treated Us.”

The general theme of the text may be said to be, “Treat Others as He has Treated Us.”

So we see both in the case AGAINST impartiality, and in the case FOR Mercy, we are to “Treat Others as He has Treated Us.”

The common phrase is “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” And that’s a good phrase, I suppose But it is wishful. Others may or may not treat you well. With Christ, we have a factual happenstance. He HAS treated us even better than we could have wished to be treated. He, without partiality, has chosen us. And he has given us mercy.

So we are in the same way to treat others with that impartiality and with that mercy.

These things shows forth our faith. In our passage we are, as it were, sandwiched between those James-ian passages on the importance of works. One the one side of the sandwich he says “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” And on the other side of the sandwich he says “faith without works is dead.”

How are we to be doers? How are we to work?

It is by that law of love – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And, because God has so treated us with impartiality and mercy, let us love our neighbors in that same way.

Do not think “this person is not worthy of my time.” Or “that person is annoying.”

But be swift to listen and slow to speak, slow to anger. Let all your interactions with others display the love of God, treating them as He has treated us.