Food, Fellowship, and Favoritism: Early Christian Meals as the Setting for James 2:1–9

James 2:1–9 pictures an early Jewish-Christian assembly (sunagoge) where favoritism toward the rich shames the poor and violates the royal law of liberty. While the setting for this scene (the “assembly”) has usually been taken as an early Christian “worship service,” recent scholarship (Ward/Allison) has resurrected the older view that James envisions a legal setting, i.e. an ecclesiastical court of sorts. I argue instead that James 2:1–9 should be understood as a hypothetical scene from an early Jewish-Christian communal meal. This yields the following: 1) Most importantly, it explains why the issue of seating/location is the focal point of the discussion. 2) It explains the social import of the instructions given to the poor man to stand (slaves stood as “waiters” at ancient meals/symposia), or to “sit down as/under my footstool” (perhaps like a dog, waiting for scraps from the table). 3) My reading finds a clear parallel to James 2 in 1 Cor 11:17–34, where Paul addresses much the same issue, namely the role of social status (honor/shame, wealth/poverty) in the communal meal, and employs much the same theological strategy, arguing that such behavior is inconsistent with faithfulness to Jesus (cf. James 2:1). 4) It suggests that James may be invoking the Jesus tradition found in the two parables of Luke 14. Luke 14:7–11 concerns a wedding feast where one’s position at the table is the crucial signifier of honor or shame. Luke 14:12–14 encourages those who host meals to invite not the rich (perhaps to secure patronage), but the poor, who would be unable to repay them. James thus echoes the dominical teaching that God’s kingdom reverses society’s judgments concerning shame and honor. This is in line with James’ frequent use of Jesus-tradition, and further explains why he mentions Jesus’ example at the beginning of his discussion of favoritism (2:1).