James reminds his readers that there will yet be a future judgement at which their actions will be dealt with. He tells them what the standard will be – the law of liberty that showed to them how to live a life of freedom. What does James mean here?
He means that because they were Christians God’s law enabled them to live a life of freedom that included loving their neighbours. On one occasion, Jesus was involved in a discussion about the meaning of loving your neighbour. In order to help his listeners to understand his point, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of the parable is that anyone can show mercy, and that anyone should be the recipient of mercy. God’s law, once it has been re-written on the hearts of sinners, leads them to love practical expressions of mercy.
What will happen if we don’t show mercy? James says something that is very similar to what Jesus said in the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ James says that those who show no mercy in this life will not receive mercy on the Day of Judgement. It does not matter what other activities they have done, if they have not engaged in practical expressions of mercy there will be a severe judgement.
Mercy covers both a person’s speech and his actions. After all, it is easy to state a verbal approval of acts of mercy and not engage in any. James wants us to be doers of the word as well as listeners. Believers should be balanced, with their speech and their behaviour complementing one another.
James draws his readers’ attention to the amazing fact that divine mercy makes it possible for us to escape divine judgement when he writes that ‘mercy triumphs over judgement’. God will judge those who disobey his commandments, but such is his love of showing mercy that he will rather bestow it than impose judgements. Therefore, we need to ask for his forgiveness whenever our disobedience to his commandments has led us to express an unmerciful spirit.
James’ readers had shown favouritism to the rich who came into their gatherings, which meant that on those occasions they were not showing mercy to the poor. They probably had their reason for their choice, but their practice was taking them towards a dangerous prospect at the judgement seat.