Summary: Why does James get so harshly judgmental against the wealthy?
“Faith That Works: Principled Living”
Throughout his letter, James has been bold and blunt. He’s not wasted any words as he has outlined the basics of living out the Christian faith. He has told us to be tough in tough times, to stand firm against temptation, to perform deeds that match our profession of faith, to stop showing favoritism, to control our tongues, to strive for peace within our own circle of relationships, and to focus on one day – even one moment – at a time. But now, in this fifth chapter, he’s not only bold and blunt – he’s also brash. He appears to lash out at the wealthy in anger and judgment. It’s so forceful that commentators wrestle over the intended audience for these words. Did he write them for the sake of the non-Christian wealthy, hoping they would somehow hear the letter intended for the Christian church? Or did he write them for the Christians – and if so, why so judgmental? How do we make sense of this tirade that covers the first 6 verses – and how does it fit in to what follows?
I believe that James uses the six opening verses as a foil for lifting up principled living. The first six verses, it seems to me, are a WARNING ABOUT UNPRINCIPLED LIVING. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” What we know for certain is that James is condemning the arrogant wealthy who ill-treat others, who do not use their wealth to help others. This is A PROCLAMATION FOR THE WEALTHY. James addresses them as if he’s the Prosecuting Attorney in a courtroom. His accusations follows a long line of Old Testament prophetic warnings against nations and individuals who misuse and hoard their wealth. It is not a judgment against wealth, but against abuse of wealth.
He lays out the evidence against them. First, he accuses them (2-3) of living in excess luxury – so much so that their riches are rotting away. “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.” Second, he points to the workers who have been unjustly abused (4): “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.” The workers will show up to testify against them, and their words – their cries – will reach the ears of Almighty God the Great Judge. Thirdly, he proposes the charge against them (5-6): “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.”
These arrogant wealthy are like cattle that continue to feed and fatten themselves, unaware that they are actually preparing and heading for their slaughter.
THEY ARE GUILTY OF SELF-INDULGENCE. By hoarding wealth, they were depriving innocent people of the basic necessities of life. Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that “Feasting is fine if there’s enough to go around, but self-indulgence when there are those without is a horrible crime before God.” (1)
UNPRINCIPLED LIVING RESULTS FROM FAILURE TO RECOGNIZE THE JUDGMENT. Consider Haggai 1:9-11 (NLT): “You hoped for rich harvests, but they were poor. And when you brought your harvest home, I blew it away. Why? Because my house lies in ruins, says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, while all of you are busy building your own fine houses. It’s because of you that the heavens withhold the dew and the earth produces no crops. I have called for a drought on your fields and hills—a drought to wither the grain and grapes and olive trees and all your other crops, a drought to starve you and your livestock and to ruin everything you have worked so hard to get.” Jesus’ parable of the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate (Lk.16:19-31 NLT) personifies the situation well. “But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.’”
While James’ proclamation is intended for the arrogant wealthy, it provides A PROBING FOR ALL CHRISTIANS. We must all live in recognition of God’s judgment. God holds us responsible for what He provides for us, whether it is little or much. It raises at least two personal questions. First, HOW DO I HANDLE WEALTH? James did not condemn people for being wealthy but for how they handled their wealth. It’s not how much we possess but what we do with what we possess that matters to God. If we hoard it, if we are self-indulgent, what we have possesses us. Paul wrote (2 Cor. 8:12 CEV): “It doesn’t matter how much you have. What matters is how much you are willing to give from what you have.” This is a challenging question to us American Christians. The amount the U.S. spends annually on imported toys is $23,631,000,000. The amount spent by the next 10 highest toy-importing countries combined: $21,729,000,000. The average number of credit cards per U.S. household is 12.7. (2) According to the Self-Storage Association, the country now possesses about 1.9 billion square feet of personal storage space outside of the home… According to a recent survey, the owners of 1 out of every 11 homes also own a self-storage space. This represents an increase of 75 percent since 1995. ... But, amazingly, as the amount of storage space required by homeowners has grown, so has the average size of the American house. In fact, the National Association of Homebuilders reports that the average American house grew from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004. So—houses got bigger, average family sizes got smaller, and yet we still need to tack on almost two billion square feet of extra space to store our stuff.(3) As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:17-18): “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”