James’s warning to rich oppressors

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

James 5:1-6

James is aptly compared to Proverbs and is probably the closest New Testament book in line with the wisdom tradition in the First/”Old” Testament, the Hebrew Bible. But in this passage, James echoes the passion and cry of the prophets against wealthy oppressors. The prophets didn’t hold back their warning of God’s judgment to come against the rich who lived it up at the expense of others, especially those who were poor. Wealth in and of itself is not the problem according to the biblical witness. It’s what people do with that wealth. While God has given humankind all things to enjoy, God wants and expects those with plenty to help those who are in need. And we see a good number of examples of that in scripture, such as the story/parable our Lord told of the good Samaritan, who apparently had at least some wealth.

That is not what James is getting at here. Instead it’s a warning to the rich that judgment day is coming, that they are setting themselves up for disaster, even getting themselves fat for the day of slaughter. Instead of laying up treasures in heaven, they are investing everything into this life for themselves. And with a stingy, Scrooge-like heart, rather than a generous giving heart. Jesus’s words are apt here:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,a]”>[a] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,b]”>[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Matthew 6:19-24

Notice the links in this passage to the following footnotes:

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 6:22 The Greek for healthy here implies generous.
  2. Matthew 6:23 The Greek for unhealthy here implies stingy.

The rich were in service to the god of Money, the love of which, as we read from Paul (1 Timothy 6) being a root of all kinds of evil. God expects people to help others when and as they can, by grace out of a cheerfully willing heart. And God does not look kindly on those who have plenty of wealth even at the expense of others, particularly those who are poor. Judgment Day is coming, and it won’t be pretty. All the evil that has been done will have to be accounted for, when God judges everyone according to their works. In James’s day: unpaid wages, and out and out murder: the innocent or righteous one, and in a sense our Lord himself because of his identification with his people. In our day it could refer to a heartless failure to not love one’s neighbor as one’s self, played out in all kinds of ways in terms of what is done and left undone.

This is not a feel good passage in James. James really wasn’t about giving people a lift, except in helping people to a living faith. This ends up being a word of encouragement to those who were oppressed and suffering, and praying to God for relief. At the same time it could have been a warning that would get not only to the ears, but into the hearts of those who needed to hear it. That they might repent and change their ways, yes, in the fear of God and God’s judgment to come. But James does not refer to any such promise here.

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One comment on “James’s warning to rich oppressors

  1. […] light of James’s warning to their rich oppressors, James tells these believers to be patient until the Lord’s coming. […]

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