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)