I know many Christians who act as if they don't have James 2 in their Bibles.
The first half of this chapter deals with the issue of favoritism toward the wealthy, especially in church. I don't know how relevant this passage comes to those who aren't in pastoral leadership, but I can attest to it being a significant issue in the trade (especially among those who would use a phrase like "the trade" to describe the calling of ministry!)
In some ministries, there are subtle expectations that certain people will be treated differently. Pastors are encouraged to "wine and dine" their most generous donors when they have a new vision to pitch. Churches are advised to "target" specific demographics, even preferable socio-economic statuses, as they tailor their outreach. Some preachers even confess to censoring their sermons to avoid offending important individuals within their congregations.
And favoritism today isn't only about matters of wealth. Sometimes families with young children get special treatment, or the youth, or the aged. Sometimes it is those in the "inner circle" of a pastor's team who get the lion's share of attention. Frequently the principle of "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" is operative. Ministry leadership brings with it its own special set of temptations.
James doesn't help matters when he advises that showing favoritism is a sin, making practitioners guilty as lawbreakers - counting it like any other sin (even murder and adultery). The idea that all sins are equal in God's sight gets a lot of lip service, but in practice there are a lot of sins that are tolerated and winked at by ministry professionals. According to James, this is not right.
At least we can always fall back on our faith (not our deeds) to save us, right? Wrong. In the second half of chapter 2, James takes the hard-line position that our faith AND deeds go hand-in-hand. In fact, you can tell what is really going on in our faith (on the inside) by observing our deeds (on the outside). James can get under our skin because now he has taken away the refuge of "Well, I mean right," and "It's in my heart." That's not the kind of faith that will save us, if it is mismatched to our actions. Loving someone isn't merely a matter of thoughts or words - it's the higher, harder call of putting love into action.
Thanks a lot, James.