Despite the extreme opposition he faced to his teaching, despite the way his detractors painted him as a lawbreaker, Jesus taught that he had come to fulfill every last little requirement of the law (Matt 5:17-18). By this, he did not mean that he intended to out-Pharisee the Pharisees and get a perfect score on his observance of the ceremonial law. Rather, he taught that the essence of the law could be summed up in two great commandments: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40). His life and death would be the ultimate embodiment of both.
In the Sermon on the Mount, having declared that his mission was to fulfill the entire law, Jesus began deconstructing what his hearers had been taught. “You have heard…” he would begin, citing some understanding of the law that his listeners took for granted. Then he’d follow with a contrasting “But I say to you…” as a lead-in to teaching them what God intended.
For example, Jesus challenged their understanding of two of the Ten Commandments: the prohibitions against murder and adultery (Matt 5:21-30). He undermined the confidence of those who considered themselves innocent in such matters: So you think that you’re fine because you’ve never actually killed someone, or have never actually slept with another man’s wife? Think again. I’m telling you that if you’ve been mad enough to call someone a nasty name or have so much as lusted after a woman, you’re already guilty before God.
But the message here isn’t: It’s a lot harder than you think! Jesus was teaching a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 5:20, NRSV) — a righteousness that is not earned by punctilious observance of religious rules, but instead demonstrated in one’s character. And significantly, this block of teaching ends with the law of love: If you want to be like your heavenly Father, you’ll love your neighbor — and your neighbor includes your enemy, too (Matt 5:43-48).
This teaching of Jesus is echoed in James, as he warns his readers away from the sin of showing honor to the rich in a way that dishonors the poor:
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. (James 2:8-12, NRSV)
It’s possible to read James as saying, If you’re going to keep the law, you have to keep the whole enchilada. You know the biggies: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder. It doesn’t matter if you succeed in one area and fail in another: break one, break them all. And oh, by the way, partiality may not be on the official list, but if you mess up here you’re a lawbreaker too, just as much as an adulterer or murderer.
That doesn’t sound much like a “law of liberty,” does it?
But neither James nor Jesus were trying to lay additional burdens of righteous behavior on people. Rather, they were pointing people to authentic righteousness and a true understanding of the intent of God’s law. In this, they mirrored the teaching of the prophets. Micah, for example, famously taught that God didn’t want ostentatious sacrifice; he wanted a people who embodied justice, kindness, and humility (6:8).
Thus, James is not adding partiality to the list of sins believers should avoid. Yes, in a sense, he is saying, If you keep the law, you have to keep the whole law, including this. But he says this in order to show the futility of the more Pharisaic understanding of the law that Jesus tried to correct.
James doesn’t want people to anxiously fear the judgment of God even more than they already do because of some hitherto unrecognized transgression. There is liberty in realizing instead that the “royal law” of love is the intent of the law, period, as Jesus taught. James wants his readers to be transformed by the gospel from the inside out, to begin to see the poor among them as worthy of love and acceptance. As in the teaching of Jesus, those who truly recognize the depth of God’s mercy should extend a similar mercy to others, not just in forgiveness, but compassion.
That’s when believers will come to understand what James says next: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b).