Chapter 2 of James contains some pretty deep stuff. Here are my attempts to summarize...
The first half talks about favoritism and judgment. I found this highly convicting. How quickly I judge people based on outward appearance. I'm drawn to people who are popular, charismatic, beautiful, intelligent and charming. These are the social "riches" in our culture today. And while I may not be outwardly mean, I do tend to avoid or ignore people who I find socially awkward or less attractive, those who are socially "poor". I hate to admit this, but it is true. James admonishes people like me, who favor the rich over the poor. The thing that brings us back to equal ground, is what all of us have in common, rich, poor, you and I: "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (2:10). I am a rotten sinner, no matter how good I appear, and therefore, I have no right to judge others based on their appearance. Man. So much harder to actually live out!
The second half is where the big meaty stuff is (as if the 1st half wasn't already pretty heavy!) This is the famous "faith without works" passage! It's a complex concept, and I definitely don't claim to understand it completely. BUT, I think there is also something simple about this: Faith that is not demonstrated by action is not real faith. Verbal profession without any consequential change in lifestyle, is meaningless and empty. It's like having a car but never getting in, starting the ignition, and driving it. What is the point? The engine may as well be dead.
The tricky part is when 2:24 says "You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone." Doesn't this contradict what Paul says in Romans and elsewhere in his letters? Doesn't the new covenant eradicate our obligation to the law? No and Yes. James here is talking about actions that are a response to genuine belief and profession of Christ. He never says that faith is not necessary. It is. It's completely necessary and essential. The kind of works that Paul says is meaningless, is the kind that replaces faith. Doing a bunch of dutiful, obedient actions in hopes that you can earn your way to salvation is what Paul criticizes. I think Paul would be the first one to agree with James that real faith means a faith that is demonstrative and life-changing.
This definitely doesn't do justice to the 'faith and works' discourse, but I hope it was at least partially helpful. The takeaway point for me is that I need to ask myself, "What am I doing that shows real faith?" If I have a hard time seeing actions in my life, why is that? Have I been leaning on an inaccurate view of 'faith alone'?
Some food for thought.