The Bible in Its Traditions

James 2:12–13

Byz S TR
Nes V

12  So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.

12  So speak ye, and so do, as men that are to be judged by a law of liberty.

12b law of freedom Jas 1:25
Byz Nes V

13  For judgment is without mercy to the one who does not show mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

13  For a judgment without mercy will be on him, who does not show mercy; for you exalt yourselves by having mercy over judgment.

13  For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

13a merciless to the one who has not done mercy Sir 28:1-7; Mt 6:12-15; 18:21-35

Suggestions for Reading

1–26 Appraisal of Faith-inspired Action This chapter presents James' demonstration of the integral relationship between genuine faith and actions. It falls into two basic sections:

  • Jas 2:1–13: The faith of Jesus Christ is incompatible with actions showing favoritism towards the rich. This section is a chiselled rhetorical argument (Literary Devices 2:1–13).
  • Jas 2:14–26: Verbal acceptance of the faith of Jesus Christ is not a true faith unless it is expressed through concrete actions, especially actions that assist the poor.


Literary Genre

1–26 Deliberative Rhetoric The whole of chapter 2 is a fine example of deliberative (sumbouleutikon) rhetoric (see Aristotle Rhet. 1.3.3), where the speaker seeks to dissuade his audience from a certain action or exhort them to it. Here James attempts to dissuade his readers from showing favoritism to the rich (Jas 2:1–13) and to exhort them to live out their faith through actions (Jas 2:14–26). The diatribe style is used frequently in deliberative rhetoric.


Ancient Texts

12b law of freedom Stoic View: True Freedom is Following The Divine Will (Law) On the Stoic view that true freedom arises from following the divine law and divine will, see Ancient Texts 1:25a.

Biblical Intertextuality

12b law of freedom Paul and James on Law, Slavery, and Freedom For the relationship of James' views to Paul's view on freedom, slavery, and law, see Biblical Intertextuality 1:25a .

Peritestamental Literature

12b law of freedom Torah Frees One from Slavery to Passions On Philo's views on how following the Torah leads to true freedom from the slavery to passions, see Peritestamental Literature 1:25a.


Jewish Tradition

12b law of freedom The Mishnah on Freedom and Study of the Law The Mishnah associates following the Torah with freedom:

  • m. 'Abot 6.2 "R. Joshua b. Levi said, 'for you find no freeman excepting him that occupies himself in the study of the Law'" (Danby 1933, 459).

Suggestions for Reading

1–13 Exhortation to Impartiality towards the Rich


Jas 2:1–13: The faith of Jesus Christ is incompatible with actions showing favoritism towards the rich. This section is a chiselled rhetorical argument (Literary Devices 2:1–13).

Contextual Contrast and Continuities


Two specific passages have attracted the greatest attention in the history of interpretation:



13b boasts over In a Triumph? The verb (katakauchaomai) literally means "to boast over" (cf. the V's superexulto), as when a gladiator boasts over his fallen foe. The verb can thus have the extended meaning of "triumph over." See also the use in Jas 3:14. See the discussion on a possible conflict between mercy and judgment in Christian Tradition 2:13b.



13b mercy boasts over judgment Allusion in Paradise Lost?

  • Milton Par. Lost. 3.131–34 may allude to this verse: "man therefore shall find grace, / The other [i.e., Satan and his followers] none: in mercy and justice both, / Through heaven and earth, so shall my glory excel, / But mercy first and last shall brightest shine."


Literary Devices

1–13 Rhetorical Structure Watson 1993a analyzes the rhetorical structure of this section as follows (cf. Ps.-Cicero Rhet. Her. 2.18.28 for the categories). 

Propositio (the proposition to be proved; Jas 2:1): The faith of Jesus Christ is incompatible with displays of partiality towards the rich and powerful within the Christian community. 

Ratio (the causal basis for the propositio; Jas 2:2–4): The specific example of partiality in seating the rich and influential shows that community members are making judgments incompatible with the non-judgmental faith of Jesus Christ. 

Confirmatio (further confirmation of the propositio; Jas 2:5–7): In aligning themselves with the rich, church members align themselves with enemies of the faith: it is the rich who oppress poor community members and who blaspheme the name of the Lord Jesus: 

  • Jas 2:5–6a: partiality directly contradicts God’s preference for the poor; 
  • Jas 2:6bc: partiality supports the very people who oppress the community; 
  • Jas 2:7: partiality supports the blasphemy of the rich against God. 

Exornatio (embellishment and enrichment of the argument once the propositio is established; Jas 2:8–11): the one who shows favoritism violates the royal law (i.e., the faith of Jesus Christ: the Torah of the Kingdom taught by Jesus). 

Conplexio (a brief conclusion summarizing the argument; Jas 2:12–13): James exhorts the community to abandon favoritism and to speak and act in a way consistent with the royal law. If they continue with their unwarranted judgmental and partial behavior, they themselves can expect a harsh judgment.

1–13 beloved brothers Softening of the Criticism While strongly criticizing the community for the sin of partiality towards the rich, James uses rhetorical techniques to soften his criticism’s harshness:

He also employs hypothetical scenarios and rhetorical questions instead of directly accusing members of sin:

  • Jas 2:2: “if a man wearing gold rings”; 
  • Jas 2:4: “have you not made distinctions”; 
  • Jas 2:9: “if you show partiality”. 

Only at Jas 2:6a does one find direct accusation: “But you have dishonored the poor person.” 

12f Speak in such a way, and act in such a way Concluding Call to Action Rhetorical theorists list the call to action as one conclusion to an argument; e.g., Rhet. Alex. 20 [1434a].


Ancient Texts

13 mercy A Range of Views

A Natural Human Trait

Aristotle Rhet. 2.8.2 [1385b–1386b] defines eleos as "a kind of pain excited by the sight of evil, deadly or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it" (Freese 1926 224). A person feels pity for another to the extent that he realizes that the same misfortune could happen to himself or to his friends. Demosthenes 1–2 Aristog. 1.81 regards it as part of human nature, and a fitting quality for a juror.

Negative View of Mercy in Stoicism

Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.111 reports that the Stoics regarded mercy (eleos) as a negative passion, one of the subcategories, along with jealousy and envy, of pain (lupê; Hicks 1925, 2:217).

Plato: Mercy is not Always Appropriate

Plato Leg. 5 [731C–D] argues for a balance: in general one should show mercy (eleein) to those who do wrong, and to be gentle (praus) with wrongdoers. But in dealing with those who are obstinately wicked, one must be ready to fight them, for example, in self-defense. In punishing such people, one must allow anger (Plato uses both thumos and orgê in this discussion) free reign, and punish them severely (Bury 1926, 1:336–7).


Jewish Tradition

13 judgment is merciless to the one who has not done mercy The Same Principle in Rabbinic Literature

  • Sipre Deut. 96 "Whenever you show mercy (mrḥm) to others, mercy is shown to you from heaven, when you show no mercy to others, no mercy will be shown to you from heaven" (Hammer 1986, 144; Finkelstein 1939, 157); cf. b. Šabb. 151b. 

Christian Tradition

1–13 Liberation Theology Perspectives

Taking the Perspective of the Poor

Commenting on Jas 2:5b from the perspective of the Latin American poor, Elsa Tamez concludes,

  • James clearly states that God indeed has a partiality for the poor. "If favoritism is prohibited in the community it is because favoritism always favors the rich, never the poor."

Tamez criticizes contemporary biblical exegetes of Jas 2:1–13 on two points:

  • Many exegetes comment that one should not conclude from this passage that all wealthy people are bad or should be condemned (Christian Tradition 2:5b). Nothing in the text itself would occassion such a comment, and thus reveals that these exegetes write from the perspective of the wealthy and powerful.
  • Some exegetes argue that James' reference to "the poor" signifies those who are pious, and thus does not indicate their economic status.  In the view of these scholars, "The rich become the piously poor and the poor rich in piety, and the economic order and the unjust power stay as they are." In Tamez's view, James, on the contrary, clearly refers to the economically poor, and criticizes the wealthy for their oppression of them (Tamez 2002, 36–37).
Partiality as Discrimination
  • Smit argues that the closest modern counterpart to James' concept of partiality is discrimination, and applies it specifically to apartheid in South Africa. Partiality towards the wealthy and powerful necessarily involves a dehumanization of the poor and powerless, who are seen not as human beings created in God's image, but defined by non-essential characteristics such as race and economic status (Smit 1990, 65–67).


Literary Devices

1–13 Theme of Wholeness and Division James continues the contrast between godly wholeness and sinful division: just as an individual person should not be divided and double-minded (Jas 1:6–8), so too the church members should not be divided by showing partiality to the rich in the community (Jas 2:4). See also→James: Perfection / Wholeness in James .

13a For judgment is merciless to the one who has not done mercy Concluding Use of a Maxim This passage may well be an originally independent maxim (Greek: gnômê; Latin: sententia), as suggested by the following considerations:

(1) the sudden appearance of a new topic: mercy;

(2) the compressed expression; 

(3) the switch from second person imperative to gnomic third person.

James commonly concludes a rhetorical unit with a maxim: Jas 1:12; 3:18; 4:17.


Biblical Intertextuality

13b mercy boasts over judgment Sirach and Jesus’ Teaching on Mercy The relationship of mercy, judgment, and forgiveness of sin is a central biblical theme.

Mercy and Judgment in Sirach

Sir 28:1–7 parallels James' teaching:

  • "The vengeful (ekdikôn) will face the Lord's vengeance; indeed he remembers their sins in detail.  Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?  Can one refuse mercy (eleos) to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for one's own sins?  If a mere mortal cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?  Remember your last days and set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!  Remember the commandments and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults."

Teaching of Jesus

At the heart of Jesus' own teaching is this same principle. Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount:

  • Mt 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, (eleêmôn) for they will be shown mercy" (eleeô).
  • Mt 6:14–15: "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (cf. the parable of the unforgiving servant in Mt 18:21–35). 

The "royal law" (Jas 2:8) of the Kingdom of God, then, is characterized by mercy and forgiveness and not by a strict adherence to legal standards of judgment. This "law of freedom" is governed by the commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Jas 2:8): the attitude of love includes the inclination to show mercy rather than hold to a strict standard of judgment. See →James: Jesus' Traditions in James.


Comparison of Versions

13b mercy boasts over judgment Syriac and Latin Interpretations

Syriac Tradition

S changes the abstract principle of mercy triumphing over judgment to a personal application: "by mercy, you (pl.) will be raised above judgment." Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. paraphrases, "You will be raised up by [your] generosity above judgment, for you will not be seen under the condemnation of judgment" (Sedlacek 1910, 94; Syriac-ibid., 123).

Latin Tradition

The Latin tradtion witnesses two readings:

  • superexaltat autem misericordia judicium (judicio): mercy is exalted over, or triumphs over, judgment (Bede Ep. cath.; C).
  • superexultat autem misericordia iudicio : mercy "rejoices over" or boasts over judgment (V).

Erasmus Annot. Ep. Iac.. ad loc. prefers the reading superexulto, in the sense that mercy extols itself over against judgment (van Poll-van de Lisdonk 2014, 400).

Christian Tradition

1–13 Divisio Textus

  •  Ps.-Andreas Catena, recognizing James' primary focus on the issue of partiality within the church, places Jas 2:1–13 under the heading, "Concerning imparital (aprosôpolêptos) love for each person according to the law" (Cramer 1844, 8:9).

See →James: Medieval Divisio Textus .



13b,3:17 mercy Loving-kindness and Almsgiving

Translation of Hebrew ḥesed

The Greek eleos regularly translates the Hebrew ḥesed, a word referring to God's loving-kindness for his people:

  • Ex 20:6, the Lord will show "love (ḥsd) down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."

Later Association with Almsgiving


Visual Arts

1:1–5:20 James Depictions of the Author Depictions of James, the author of the epistle, in paintings, statues, manuscript illustrations, engravings, woodcuts, and embroidery on liturgical vestments are particularly prominent in the Middle Ages. A common consensus of the artists is that the author of the epistle is James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church; he is typically further identified with James, son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus' Twelve (Mk 3:18), and "James the Less" (Mk 15:40). The iconography of James draws particularly on accounts of James recorded in Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 23 and Jerome Vir. ill. 2, who in turn draw on accounts from Clement of Alexandria and Hegesipus. See also →James: Introduction

Several prominent features of these portrayals may be noted:

  • Following the tradition that he was the first bishop of Jerusalem, James is often portrayed anachronistically in bishop's vestments.
  • James is often portrayed holding a fuller's club, alluding to the tradition that James was beaten to death with a such a club. Variations show him holding different types of clubs. Another related tradition shows James holding a bow such as one used by hat-makers of the Middle Ages.
  • James bears a striking physical resemblance to his brother Jesus.
  • One artistic tradition, based on accounts found in the preface to the Gloss. Ord. and de Voragine Leg. aur., portrays the infant James as part of a large extended family. According to this legend, St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, had three children named Mary with three different husbands. James and his brothers Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude (cf. Mk 6:3) are the sons of Mary (daughter of Anne and Cleophas; cf. Jn 19:25) and Alphaeus (cf. Mk 3:18). James and his brothers are thus cousins of Jesus (son of Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim) and of St. John the Evangelist and James the Greater (sons of Mary, daughter of Anne and Salomas).

The following images are noteworthy:

  • A painting of James in the Armenian Sts. James Cathedral, Jerusalem: James is dressed in episcopal robes, wears a miter and holds a crozier (Gowler 2014, 54).
  • Blessed James Apostle. In the Stav. Bib. (1093-97) illuminations of the apostle James are at the introduction to the Catholic epistles (f. 197 r→) and at the beginning of his epistle (f. 197 v→.). The apostle stands, holding a book.
  • Apostle James the Less, statue, south portal of Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century.

Anonymous, James Among Other Apostles (sculpture on limestone, early 13th c.),  South Portal, Chartres Cathedral, France

© D.R. Photo Mary Ann Sullivan→ 

James holds a club.

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1495-98), The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. 

Giampietrino (1495–1549), The Last Supper (oil on canvas, ca. 1520, after Leonardo da Vinci [1452–1519], The Last Supper [1495-1498]),  298 cm x 770 cm

Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhib. Magdalen College, Oxford

Public Domain © Wikicommons→ 

James, who resembles his brother Jesus, is second from his left. This full-scale copy was the main source for the— unfortunate—twenty-year restoration of the original (1978–1998). It includes several lost details such as Christ's feet, the transparent glass decanters on the table, and the floral motifs of the tapestries that decorate the room's interior.  It was first mentioned in 1626 by the author Bartolomeo Sanese as hanging in the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery near Pavia, Italy, but it is unlikely that it was intended for this location. At some point, the upper third of the picture was cut off, and the width was reduced. Giampietrino is thought to have worked closely with Leonardo when he was in Milan. A very fine, full-size copy of this painting, before it was cut down, is installed at Tongerlo Abbey in Westerlo, near Antwerp, Belgium. 

  • Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509), Infant Saint James among his relations, a triptych in the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany. The infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary's mother St. Anne are portrayed in the center. To the right is St. Anne's other daughter Mary, her husband Zebedee, and sons John the Evangelist and James the Greater. To the left is another of St. Anne's daughters named Mary with her husband Alphaeus; their children James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude are in the left and center panels.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), The Holy Kinship, (mixed media on lime, Wittenberg, 1509), Altarpiece, central panel: 100.4 × 121.1 cm; wings: 40 × 120 cm

Städel Museum — 1398, Frankfurt am Main

Public Domain © Wikicommons→

The side and central panels describe a a great hall with blue grey walls and three-colored tiles. In the side panels are depicted the half sisters of Virgin Mary, called after their fathers Mary Cleophas (left) and Mary Salome (right) together with their husbands.

Left panel: St. Mary Cleophas and Alphaeus (with the features of Friedrich the Wise with their two sons, the Apostles St. James the Less (at her breast) and Joseph Justus, called St. Barnabas, as annunciator of the Gospel of Matthew depicted with a book.

Central panel: Joseph, who seems to seems to sleep, the Virgin, dressed in blue with yellow lining, Anna and the Christ Child on her knee, who is stretching out his hand towards an apple given to him by Virgin Mary. Anna's three husbands following de Voragine Leg. aur. are shown in the background in the matroneum: on the left Joachim, who is attracted by the holy women in front of him and whose relation is also shown by the corresponding blue and yellow color of his dress, Cleophas (with the physiognomy and chain of Emperor Maximilian I and Salomas, with the physiognomy of Sixtus Oelhafen von Schöllenbach, secretary of Friedrich III, Maximilian I and Karl V), who are talking to each other. There is an architectural structure by a great stone bench in the foreground of the central panel with two marble columns on the sides, over which is strectched a cloth of gold. On the right column is a tablet with date and signature: [LVCAS CHRONVS FACIEBAT ANNO 1509. The parapet of the matroneum is decorated by a sculptured frieze with dancing putti holding six escutcheons with the six fields of Electorate of Saxony. In the hall are shown the 17 members of the Holy Kinship. In the central panel are shown two more children of Mary Cleophas and Alpheus, the Apostles Simon, patron saint of weavers, dyers, tanners and saddlers and Jude, who went on mission and suffered their martyrdom together and therefore are regularly depicted together.

Right panel: St. Mary Salome and Zebedee (with the features of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and his brother Herzog Johann der Beständige). St. Mary Salome, dressed in gold with dark red lining, is combing her son Saint James the Greater and while Saint John the Evangelist is hiding in her dress.

  • Paolo Veronese (Caliari) James as Bishop (1500s). Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK. The Bridgeman Art Library. James with crozier and miter, holding a book.

Paolo Veronese Cagliari (1528-1888), Saint James, (oil on canvas, ca. 1578), 200 X 85 cm, One of the volets of the organ of the church of San Jacopo, Murano, Venice — the other is a portrait of St. Augustine.

Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK, © A Graduate of Pomona→

  • Saint James the Less, painting by El Greco (c. 1612), Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain. 

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El Greco (Domenikos Theotokópoulos) 1541-1614, The Apostle James the Greater, (Oil on canvas, 1610-1614), 100 cm X 80 cm

 Museo de El Greco→ (Toledo, Spain), © Wikicommons, 

James is shown holding a Bible, symbolizing his status as a scriptural writer, in one hand. James is depicted in the Mannerist style with elongated form and without any of the traditional iconographic symbols

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Nicolò Bambini (1651-1736), San Giacomo Minore (Oil on canvas, 1722-1723), Communion of St James (Series of the Twelve Apostles), Presbytery: right wall, center, Saint Stae,Venezia, © Chorus Venezia→ 

The risen Jesus appears to James and breaks bread with him (based on an account recorded in Jerome Vir. ill. 2, said to be drawn from the Gospel according to the Hebrews).

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Angelo de' Rossi (1671 – 1715), Jacobus Minor (Sculpture on marble, 1710-1711), Gli Apostoli, (h: 424 cm), Nef, San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma, © Wikicommons

James holds a book and club.

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James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), James the Lesser, (Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 1886-1894), 30.6 x 23.5 cm, Brooklyn Museum, 00.159.237, © Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2008

James, resembling Jesus, prayers on his knees with outstretched arms. It perhaps reflects Hegesippus' statement that James spent so much time in prayer that his knees were as hard as a camel's.

Eastern Orthodox traditions

  • James the Just, Russian icon, 16th century. Novgorod. James is depicted in episcopal robes and holds a book.

Anonymous, James the Just, (pigments on wood, mid. 16th c.), icon, Novgorod or Moskow, Novgorod

Public Domain © Wikicommons→,

The inscription bearing the name of the saint has disappeared, but the iconography—facial features and beard shape —suggest that the icon is of James. Byzantine art places him among the founding fathers of the Church. As the creator of the first liturgy containing memorial services and the author of the message, which speaks of the healing power of prayer (Jas 5:14-16), he was also worshipped in ancient times as a healer. In Novgorod, James is prayed for the end of the epidemics. In sacred iconography, the representations of James of Jerusalem alone are very rare. We know the icons of Novgorod in which he is represented with other saints: Nicholas the Thaumaturgist, James the brother of God, Ignatius the bearer of God, end of the 15th c.; James the brother of God, Cosmas and Damian, 2nd quarter of the 16th c. The icon comes from the best workshops in Moscow or Novgorod.

  • Martyrdom of James the Just. Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II. (PG 117:6-612). Late 10th, early 11th c. AD. Vatican Library. 1613. Image 131.→  

For discussion of visual depictions, see Gowler 2014, 53-62; Bedford 1911.

Christian Tradition

12b law of freedom Various Interpretations

Law of Freedom is the Law of Love

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.19 identifies the "law of freedom" with "the law of love" (the royal law governed by the principle, "Love your neighbor as youself" mentioned in 2:8; Teske 2006, 2/3: 103; Goldbacher 1923, 606).
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. too makes this connection, commenting, "by acting in this way, you see to it that by loving your neighbor you deserve to be loved by God (proximos diligendo a Deo diligi mereamini); by showing mercy to your neighbor you become worthy of mercy (misericordia digni) in the divine judgment" (Hurst 1985, 25; Hurst 1983, 195).

Law of Freedom is the Law of Christ

  •  Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. further identifies the "law of freedom" as "the grace (gratia) of the Gospel which came through Jesus Christ" (Hurst 1985, 25–26; Hurst 1983, 195); he contrasts this with the "law of slavery" given by Moses, a standard contrast among early Christians.
  • Palamas Hom. 38.7 comments, "Christ's law is a law of liberty, for through holy baptism He has made us free from the law of sin and death" (cf. Rom 8:2; Veniamin 2009, 301–2; see also Christian Tradition 1:25a).

The Law of Freedom Shows No Partiality

  •   Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. loc. connects the topic of partiality with freedom: "He says that the law of liberty is the law that shows no partiality (aprosôpolêptos), which is the law of Christ. For the one who shows partiality is not free but a slave, for 'a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him'" (2Pt 2:19; col. 476).

Law of Liberty and Free Will

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. understands the law of liberty as a reference to free will: "according to that which you will do by your own will, you will be judged on the last day" (Sedlacek 1910, 94; Syriac-ibid., 123).
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. also connects the law of liberty with one's conscience, "Since the evangelical law (lex Evangelica) is the law of liberty, it requires not such a precise (exactam), but rather a free and open (liberam et liberalem) observance of the commandments of Christ. God therefore begins to judge us immediately in this life by the judgment of conscience (conscientia), which is constituted as a kind of his tribunal in the human mind.” This judgment is then completed with the particular judgment at one's death, followed by final judgment on the last day, when all are judged by "the law of liberty, the evangelical law"  (20:115).

Luther: James' Contradiction of Paul

Luther Pref. Jas. Jude reads the "law of liberty" as a reference to the Old Testment law. James' characterization is thus one of the grounds for denying the apostolic authorship of the letter, "He calls the law a law of liberty, though Paul calls it a law of slavery, or wrath, of death, and of sin" (LW 35:397; WA DB 7:386-87). See also →James: Interpretation of James in the Reformation.

13a judgment is merciless to the one who has not shown mercy Various Interpretations

The Merciless Not Given Mercy

  • James' passage is often connected with the petition in the Lord's Prayer and Jesus' explication at Mt 6:12–15: "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.…If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (cf. Cassian Coll. 9.22; Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. [cols. 475–478]; Augustine of Hippo Civ. 21.27).

Mercy Closely Connected with Almsgiving

The tradition closely connects mercy (G: eleos; L: misericordia) with almsgiving (G: eleêmosunê; L: eleemosyne). The Catholic tradition classifies almsgiving as one of the "works of mercy":

  • CCC 2447 "The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God."
  •  Caesarius of Arles Serm. 31.4:  Applying James' teaching to Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31) and applying both to contemporary wealthy people, Caesarius warns that those who refuse to give alms to the poor will find no mercy in the final judgment (Mueller 1973, 1:157; cf. Caesarius of Arles Serm. 142.8). See the same application to Luke's parable in Ps.-Peter of Alexandria Riches 29.

The Merciful Saved from Judgement

  • Augustine of Hippo Serm.  389.5 (formerly Serm. 60.10): Commenting on the salvation of the those who helped the hungry and thirsty in Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31–46), together with other passages (e.g., Sir 3:30 [V-3:33]: "As water does fire, so almsgiving extinguishes sin"), Augustine concludes that Jesus in effect said to those who are saved, "you redeemed your sins with almsdeeds" (vestra peccata eleemosynis redemistis). Conversely, those who are condemned to eternal punishment would have been saved if they had shown acts of mercy (Hill 1997 3/10: 409–10; PL 38:407), but since they had shown no mercy, they receive no mercy at the judgment (quoting Jas 2:13). Cf. also Augustine's combination of the parable of the sheep and the goals, Mt 5:7 and Jas 2:13 in Augustine of Hippo Ep. 137.36. Similarly Caesarius of Arles Serm. 157.3.
  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 140.75, 79 quotes the passage to suggest that one must rely on God's mercy on the Day of Judgment, and not on one's own good conscience (conscientia).
  • Leo the Great Serm. 10.3–4 (2) warns that the rich who keep other commandments but do not give alms to the "the poor of the Church" cannot obtain salvation, referencing Mt 5:7, Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats, Sir 3:30Jas 2:26 and other texts (Freeland and Conway 1996, 44–45; Chavasse 1973, 1:41–44); cf. Leo the Great Serm. 11.1–2.
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. writes similarly: "If we forgive our neighbors of the sins which they have committed against us and give a share (metadosis) of our possessions to those in need, then the mercy of God will be given back to us in the judgment" (col. 476 C).

But the Merciful Not Necessarily Saved

  • Augustine of Hippo Civ. 21.27 however, knows of interpreters who use Jas 2:13 (along with Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats and the Lord's Prayer) to argue that "only those are to burn in eternal fire (aeterno igne) who have neglected to perform works of mercy in reparation of their sins" (pro peccatis suis facere dignas elemosynas neglegunt; Dyson 1998, 1098; Dombart and Kalb 1955, 2:800). According to these interpreters, any sins can be forgiven, so long as they are balanced out by merciful acts. (cf. also Augustine of Hippo Civ. 21.22). Augustine warns against such presumptuousness, teaching that works of mercy must be accompanied by a sincere desire to amend one's life and a willingness to forgive those who sin against one.
  • Aquinas ST Supp. 99.5 concurs with Augustine's warning on misinterpreting Jas 2:13. He considers the question, "Whether all those who perform works of mercy (opera misericordiae) will be punished eternally? Evidence that the belief that they will not be punished eternally includes Jas 2:13a, Mt 5:7, and Jeus' parable of the sheep and goats. On the contrary, Thomas argues that one cannot attain to eternal life without love (sine caritate). But some people in fact do works of mercy (opera misericordiae) without love, as those who seize the property of others but still spend something on works of mercy. Neither works of mercy nor faith will save those who die in a state of mortal sin from eternal punishment. Thomas also quotes Jas 2:10 in suport of his argument that one can keep the law regarding works of mercy but neglect other works, and still be liable to eternal punishment. With Jas 2:13, those who do show mercy will obtain mercy "in an ordinate manner" (ordinate). Those who show works of mercy but neglect other areas "will not obtain the mercy that sets free altogether, even if they obtain that mercy which rebates somewhat their due punishment" (English Dominicans 1947, 5:3000–1).

Is God's Judgment of Sinners Mercy?

  • Peter Lombard Sent. 4.46.1 (265) discussing the question, "Whether mitigation of punishment (mitigatio poenae) is granted to the very evil" (valde malis), reports that some use this verse to conclude that there will be no relief of punishment for those who are very evil . Citing the authority of Augustine and Cassiodorus, Lombard concludes that the verse means that those who do not show mercy will indeed receive a judgment of damnation (iudicium damnationis), but does not rule out that the damned will still "feel God's mercy in some alleviation of his pain" (in aliqua poenae alleviatione misericordiam Dei sentite; Silano 2010, 4:250–52; Collegi S. Bonaventurae 1981, 2:529–31).

An Objection to Using Violence against Heretics

  • Castellio Haer., writing under the pseudonym Joachim Clutin, quotes Jas 2:13a in his argument that God is punishing Europe for practicing violent persection (i.e., without mercy) of religious dissenters. In particular, Castellio had in mind the execution of Michael Servetus (Bainton 1935, 216; Cluten 1610, 147).

13b mercy boasts over judgment Various Interpretations

The Power of Mercy

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. (attributed to Chrysostom): "Mercy is a kind of noble art (technê tis aristê) and patron of those who practice it. It is the friend of God, standing always next to him and readily asking favor for whomever he wishes.…It breaks chains, scatters darkness, quenches fire, kills the worm and drives away the gnashing of teeth (cf. Mk 9:44–48). By it, the gates of heaven are opened with great confidence…Mercy is truly a queen making humans like God" (homoiôs anthrôpous poiousa theôᵢ ). 'For,' he says, 'be merciful (oiktirmones) as your Father in heaven'" (cf. Mt 5:48; Cramer 1844, 13).

God Merciful to the Merciful

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. "If you have been merciful and lenient (misericors et lenis) in judgment for the poor man, you will not fear the judgment of God" (col. 71).

Mercy Does Not Contradict Justice

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.19–20 translation of Jas 2:13 read, "But mercy exults in its superiority over (superexulto) judgment," (Comparison of Versions 2:13b) and thus he comments, "I do not say, 'Mercy conquers judgment' (vincit misericordia iudicium), for it is not opposed to judgment (non enim est aduersus iudicio), but exults in its superiority over judgment because many are rescued, but they are those who have shown mercy." God's forgiveness of sin does not imply that God overlooks the demands of justice: "it is indeed just (iustum est) that they be forgiven because they forgave and that it be given to them because they gave. To be sure, there is mercy in God when he judges, and judgment in God when he shows mercy" (misericordia iudicanti et iudicium miseranti; Teske 2005, 2/3: 538, Goldbacher 1923, 607).
  • Augustine of Hippo Enarrat. Ps. 2 of Ps 32 (31).11: "Even in his judgment, there will be mercy as well [for those who have shown mercy], yet not at the expense of judgment" (in illo iudicio erit et misericordia, sed non sine iudicio; Boulding 2004, 3/15:403; Dekkers 1956, 1:256).
  • Aquinas ST 1.21.3 too is careful to show that this passage does not imply that mercy contradicts justice: "God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice (contra iustitiam), but by doing something more than justice (supra iustitiam); thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully (liberaliter vel misericorditer operatur). The case is the same with one who pardons an offense committed against him, for in remitting it he may be said to bestow a gift…Hence it is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fulness thereof (est quaedam iustitiae plenitudo). And thus it is said, 'Mercy exalteth itself above judgment'" (superexaltat iudicium; Jas 2:13; English Dominicans 1947, 1:119).

Mercy Complements Judgment

  • Gloss. Ord. ad loc. "[Mercy] is placed above (superponitur) judgment, and, as it were, illuminates judgment (quasi illuminat iudicium). [When judgment] is with mercy, through mercy itself it is more praiseworthy and more pleasing" (commendabilius est, magis placet; cols. 1279–80).

Human or Divine Mercy?

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. insists that mercy here must refer to God's mercy, since only God's mercy could, in a sense, triumph over God's judgment (Owen 1849, 309; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 403).
  • Estius Comm. ep. cath. ad loc., in contrast, holds that James refers to human mercy that in a certain sense opposes and will extol itself over divine judgment (opponet se justo Dei judicio, et adversus illud quodammodo gloriabitur); this human mercy thus in a certain sense will compel God's grace (gratiam veluti extorquebit), in that it evades the severity of judgment. This is the meaning of passages such as Mt 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (4267).

Three Interpretations of "Boasting Mercy" by Bede

  • Bede Ep. cath. "the one who has acted mercifully will exult and rejoice" (exultabit atque gaudebit) when he receives God's mercy
  • Bede Ep. cath. "It was not said, 'Mercy conquers (vincit) judgment,' for it is not opposed to judgment, but 'boasts over' (superexaltat) because a greater number of people are gathered in by mercy" (Augustine's interpretation: Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.19).
  • Bede Ep. cath. "mercy is placed ahead (superponitur) of judgment. In someone in whom there has been found a work of mercy (opus misericordiae), although he may by chance have something for which he may be punished at the judgment, the fire of sin is extinguished as if by the water of mercy" (Hurst 1985, 27; Hurst 1983, 196–97).

Qualification of an Abbot

The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict refers to this passage in its list of the qualifications of an abbot:

  • Benedict Reg. 64 "He ought, therefore, be learned in the divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring out what is new and what is old (cf. Mt 13:52). He must be chaste, temperate, and merciful (castus, sobrius, misericordis). He should always let mercy triumph over (superexaltat) judgment (Jas 2:13), so that he too may win mercy."

The Rule continues, perhaps in an illustration:

  • "He must hate faults, but love the brothers. When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel. He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed (Is 42:3). By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared (Fry 1981, 282–283). 

Luther on God’s Mercy and Justification by Faith

  • Luther Lect. Jon. 1:3 emphasizes the necessity of faith in God's grace. A person remains "in the kingdom of grace" when he does not despair of God's mercy, no matter how great his sin is. A person must "resolutely pin mind and conscience to the belief that there is still grace and forgiveness for me, even if the wrath of God and that of all creatures would threaten to consume me…That is elevating God's grace above everything else...joining in the words of the Epistle of James, 'Mercy triumphs over judgment,' that is, mercy asserts itself and proves stronger than all wrath (Gnade gilt und mag mehr denn aller Zorn) and every sentence and judgment of God" (LW 19:47; WA 19:200).

Lapide: Mercy Defeats Rigid Judgment

  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. "Mercy triumphs over judgment, that is, mercy exalts itself over judgment, overcomes and defeats (vincit) judgment and its rigid sentence of damnation….when it causes the merciful to be saved according to mercy (misericordes secundum misericordiam salventur), and not damned by the rigor and severity of judgment…The unmerciful will be judged rigidly (rigide) by judgment because they do not have a merciful patron who defends him; the merciful person, however, will be judged mercifully and attain mercy, because mercy defends him" (20:119–120).

Eschatology: the Ultimate Triumph of Mercy

  • Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 6.(3).9 preaches of the spiritual struggle between mercy and judgment. If one neglects God's mercy, then the thought of God's judgment casts him into "an unbelievable fear (metu incredibili) and shameful misery." Likewise he "became dissipated, indifferent, negligent; lukewarm at prayer (oratio tepidior), languid at work." Thus throughout life, he stands in need of both mercy and judgment, "until one day when mercy triumphs over judgment, my wretchedness will cease to smart, and my heart, silent no longer, will sing to you. It will be the end of sorrow" (Walsh and Edmonds 1980, 1:37; Leclercq et al. 1977, 1:30). Cf Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 73.4 on the prayer to the Lord Jesus to let mercy triumph over judgment on the Day of Judgment.
  • Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 14.2 refers to God's eschatological mercy on a remnant of Israel (cf. Rom 9:27), even though "the Jews" deserve to be given "judgment without mercy" (Walsh and Edmonds 1980, 1:99).
  • Lapide Comm. refers to Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats in commenting on the anagogical sense: the passage alludes to the Day of Judgment when those who have shown mercy are exalted by Christ, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt 25:31). Lapide connects this with Jas 1:9: "The brother in lowly circumstances should take pride in his high standing"—the "high standing" (exaltatio) understood as exaltation to heaven (20:122).