"But James, this is simply the way the world works! You are being naive and unrealistic to think that it can work any other way." is the response that I imagine would be likely from the first recipients of James' letter upon hearing these verses. This is because the scenario that James describes in these verses would have been the cultural norm for any social gathering of his day. This was known as the patronage system. In order for most groups or gatherings of any kind in the first century to survive and thrive they needed a wealthy patron, someone who had the resources to meet the needs of this group. In return for their support, the wealthy person enjoyed a position of status and honor among that group. As a result, the wealthy were often looking for projects they could patronize which would improve their own standing in society and anyone with some kind of civic or religious cause was usually looking for a wealthy patron. Within this intricate cultural system of patronage, it just made sense that a church would give preferential treatment to a wealthy individual in hopes of receiving their patronage just like any other group would.
But in contrast to this "normal" way of doing things, James says that God has chosen the poor "to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised." This is not just a nice play on words to say that the poor really don't have it so bad because they can still be spiritually rich even if they are materially poor. It is a reminder that God really has chosen the poor. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, he was delivering them from slavery; the most severe form of poverty. Likewise, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly spoke of God's concern for the poor. As a prophet himself, Jesus spent his time with the poor and said that in his kingdom they would be blessed. Therefore, James tells this church that they are not supposed to operate like the rest of the world, giving preferential treatment to those with wealth and influence in hopes of receiving something in return.
Of course, this is not a problem confined to the early church. We may not be a part of a patronage system but many churches today still know what it means to have a large portion of their budget depend on the giving of one wealthy family within their congregation. Many churches openly admit that the "target audience" they are trying to reach consists of upper middle class families much like themselves. Countless churches have relocated when their neighborhood no longer consisted of the demographic to which they had become accustomed to ministering. The bottom line for those of us who are committed to a local church is that there has always been and will always be a temptation to evaluate others in terms of what we think they can contribute to the ministry of our church. When we do that, we forget that the person before us, the one we are tempted to evaluate as a potential resource for our ministry, is the very one to whom we have been called to minister. James reminds us that if we are to truly be the Church, then we can not regard people as a means to our own ministerial ends. In ministry, people, rich and poor alike, are the ends.