Sometimes, life isn’t fair.
- Your position at work gets eliminated.
- Your childhood may have included abuse.
- The biopsy comes back positive.
- Kids leave home, and along the way also leave the faith.
- You work as hard as you can, but just can’t seem to get ahead financially.
When we bring these common experiences to the Bible, what we find there is realism; a realistic portrayal of everyday life, including the range of human experiences with injustice.
To revisit where we began in the book of James, his original recipients were Jewish believers in Jesus, scattered all around the Roman Empire, who were experiencing various levels of persecution for their faith. Although they hadn’t done anything to deserve suffering, they were suffering.
How Can You Make It Through Times of Suffering?
In today’s passage, James confronts those who are causing suffering, specifically causing others to suffer financially. And then in the section we’ll cover next Sunday, James turns from confronting those who cause others to suffer poverty, to comforting those who are suffering. This was a very timely word to 1st-century believers, and it is still just as timely today, where many struggle economically because of the tight-fistedness of some wealthy business owners.
Whatever your political persuasions or economic views coming to today’s passage, the challenge is to hear—truly hear—what the Spirit says, and not dilute it or dismiss it because of coming with your mind already made up.
An obvious example of the latter is the generations of genuine, Jesus-loving Christians who honestly believed that slavery was something God approves of. From where we stand in history, we’re mystified how they couldn’t see slavery as a disgrace.
So I know of no way to soften the blow with which James begins today’s Scripture. It’s blunt, and here it is:
Condemnation awaits the ungodly rich
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” – James 5:1
In an earlier message, we read James 2:6-7, which challenges Christians not to defend the wealthy who are mistreating them…
“Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” – James 2:6-7
Why would we defend those who abuse our brothers and sisters in Christ? We’re called to love and pray for those who persecute us. We’re called to forgive, just as Christ forgave. But we’re not called to turn a blind eye to injustice.
When you examine James 5:1, it’s clear that the audience has changed. Here, James is not addressing believers in Jesus. Rather, he is confronting the ungodly rich who take advantage of the poor.
A fair question, then, is why is James speaking to them here? They’re not going to read this letter. James and the other New Testament letters were circulated among churches, read aloud to church gatherings. The ungodly wealthy weren’t in church. So why is this here? Why go to the trouble of laying into them, if they’re never going to see this in the first place?
There is an answer, and it comes from becoming familiar with the Old Testament prophetic books. The Holy Spirit’s message through James here is actually not for the ungodly wealthy. Instead, it is for Christians who are financially suffering, to let them know beyond a shadow of a doubt what God thinks of those who are taking advantage of them. In this passage, we get to hear what God himself would say to the rich who are functionally stealing from those who work for them.
This is a common rhetorical device used in the Old Testament prophetic books. Like the Old Testament prophets, the Holy Spirit’s word through James here is unrelenting judgment just over the horizon. The purpose of putting that here is to encourage Christians who are suffering because of the wealthy mistreating them.
A quick jump from the first century to the 21st century: Warren Buffet, who is one of the wealthiest people in the world, holds to something he calls “the jerk doctrine.” Lots of wealthy people want to spend time with Warren Buffet, to glean insights on how they can become even wealthier. But along the way, Buffet has seen his share of wealthy jerks—and that’s who James is exposing. Here’s how Buffet explains it:
“Of the billionaires I have known, money just brings out the basic traits in them. If they were jerks before they had money, they are simply jerks with a billion dollars.”
Michael Schrage, “Is Technology Making You More (or Less) of a Jerk?” HBR Blog Network (11-7-12)
So we’re about to unpack why condemnation awaits the ungodly rich, why hell is their destiny. And here’s a sneak preview: it’s not because of their money. It’s because of what they do, and don’t do, with their money. James points a blazing spotlight on three actions that will bring condemnation down on the heads of the ungodly wealthy. First is that condemnation awaits them…
1. For hoarding—gripping tightly to far more than they need.
“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.” – James 5:2-3
Picture what James describes here: rotting cash, a closet filled with moth-eaten clothing, stacks of silver and gold corroded into a disgusting bulk.
It’s an image of massive waste. It was all hoarded, rather than used. No one got to enjoy it. The owner never wanted to use it; they just wanted to have it. And now, it has become of no use to anyone.
One writer paraphrases James to say, “God has not appointed gold for rust, nor garments for moths; but on the contrary, he has designed them as aids and helps to human life.” So the value of money and possessions is found in using them. There is zero value in hoarding.
Here’s the strange thing: no one even sees themselves as a hoarder. Hoarders don’t see themselves as hoarders. But one of the strongest growth industries in America right now…is storage units. Places to store all our stuff, at the same time that American’s homes are being built larger than ever.
Instead of telling your statistics, all you have to see is the kinds of reality TV shows that have popped up in recent years. They tell the story in their titles: Auction Hunters, Auction Kings, Buried Treasure, Flea Market Flip, Hoarders, Junk Gypsies, Junkyard Wars, Pawn Stars, Picker Sisters, Storage Wars, and its spinoff Storage War Texas.
Jerry De Luca, Montreal, Montreal West, Canada; source: Alison Stewart, Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair With Stuff (Chicago Review Press, 2016)
It’s hard for us to recognize the truth in what James confronts here, that stored stuff, hoarded stuff, is useless stuff. Accumulating more and more stuff just for the sake of having it but never using it or enjoying it…is foolish. Short-sighted. And tightfisted.
The key to unlocking verses 2-3 is the closing phrase: “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”
Despite the day of judgment coming, the ungodly rich hoard far more than they actually need or use.
Second, James exposes, condemnation awaits the ungodly rich…
2. For injustice—fattening their wallet at the expense of the least.
“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.” – James 5:4
You may remember one of Jesus’ parables describes day laborers coming into town waiting for someone to hire them for the day. That was—and still is—an actual practice. In suburban New York where I grew up, there were unofficial places where day laborers, typically poor immigrants, would show up early in the morning. Landscapers and other businesses would then swing by to offer cash for a day’s work, one day at a time.
The image James gives is that those laborers put in a solid day’s sweat equity, working as farmhands. But at the end of the day, the landowner stiffs them. No pay. And no pay means no food for their family. “Daily bread” was and is a real thing for the poor.
God hears their cry is the warning. They may get away with it for now, but on the day of judgment, their injustice will be exposed and condemned. God is not deaf to the cries of the oppressed.
Let me tell you something you probably never learned about the Puritans. In popular parlance, Puritans are misrepresented as joyless and judgmental. That’s not the case. Here’s the truth with regard to justice. “American Puritans were hardworking, but they weren’t capitalists in what capitalism has distorted into in our day. American Puritans—Christians—placed everyone’s good ahead of self-advancement. They agreed on setting modest limits on how much profit was fair. That wasn’t a political debate; they recognized it as a justice issue.
And here’s what their practices produced. Ready? Unemployment was virtually nonexistent in New England. A visitor from abroad testified, ‘In seven years I never saw a beggar.’”
They pursued justice in how they did business, so that everyone who worked benefited, without unfair advantage to the wealthy. What an example! They chose to put everyone’s financial improvement over any one person taking advantage of others financially.
“The American Puritans,” Christian History, no. 41.
Wealth honestly gained comes with a clean conscience and a grateful heart. Wealth gained at the literal expense of others…God himself condemns. Condemnation awaits to ungodly wealthy, for hoarding (gripping tightly to more than they need) and for injustice (fattening their wallets at the expense of the least).
Respected pastor Eugene Peterson offers a slightly different image, writing, “If I am an atheist in my heart, making myself sovereign in place of God, and therefore arranging things in accordance with my appetites and needs and fantasies, I become a pirate in society. I relentlessly look for ways in which I can get what is there for my own uses with no regard for what anyone else gets. If I am an atheist in my heart, it is not long before I have become a cancer in the gut of the country.”
I’m going to give you an example of a cancer in the gut of the country right now: payday loan businesses. There’s one at Allisonville and 116th. Another up SR 37 in Noblesville. A bunch of them in Indianapolis. The average payday loan is for less than $350. But the annual percentage rate allowed in Indiana for payday loans legally goes as high as—get ready for this—382%. As a result, there are poor people who get their home foreclosed on. They get evicted from their apartment. Those loan rates are legal but evil. The entire reason payday loan businesses exist is to prey on people who are financially desperate. The cries of those they prey upon have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. Their condemnation is coming.
Condemnation awaits the ungodly rich for hoarding (gripping tightly to far more than they need);
Condemnation is coming upon the ungodly rich for injustice—how they fatten their wallets at the expense of the least.
And third, James exposes, condemnation awaits the ungodly rich…
3. For abuse—sacrificing nothing while making others suffer.
“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 5:5-6
Again, God hears the cries of the oppressed. That’s the heart of God’s message through James, to financially oppressed Christians. God sees it all. He hears their cry. And he will act on their behalf.
What we know from history is that in Rome, the poor were constantly in debt to the rich. And so the rich, in order to secure votes at annual elections, would lend the poor money at exorbitant interest. The poor wouldn’t be able to repay all that interest, and so they became trapped in a cycle of having to permanently support a candidate who in fact was abusing them.
“The Poor in the City of Rome,” Neville Morley
Society at large says or implies, “The aim of life is to get rich—as rich as possible.” The Holy Spirit, speaking through James, warns that how the wealthy gain their wealth, and what they do with the wealth that comes their way, is of great concern to God. The cries of the poor who suffer because of the greed and selfishness and stinginess of the wealthy have reached God’s ears, and condemnation is on the way.
The French author Francois de la Rochefoucauld holds out a far better gauge of success than wealth alone. He wrote:
“The fame of great men should always be judged by the methods they employed to achieve it.”
James would agree. Those who gain wealth at others’ expense will one day greatly regret their choice.
That’s where the passage leaves off for today. Next week, James turns the focus from God’s condemnation awaiting the ungodly rich, to his comfort for those who suffer at their hand.
So before we put an Amen on this, we would do well to come back to the good news of Jesus. For the person who hears this and realizes to their horror that they have been gaining wealth on the backs of others, at the expense of others, condemnation does not need to be where they end up. Even today, Jesus stand and calls out, in the words of Revelation 3…
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” – Revelation 3:20
The whole reason Jesus came, and the reason James wrote this, was not merely to comfort suffering Christians, but also to call everyone to jump in on following Jesus. Get in on experiencing the forgiveness that Jesus won through his death and resurrection. And get in on fellowship with him. He wants to come into your life, to go through life with you, and to lead you into new ways of doing things—including new ways of handling money and possessions.
This is Levi’s story, the greedy tax collector who was ripping as many people off, for as much as he could, until Jesus offered a meal together. From that moment on, that meal with Jesus, Levi changed how he earned and used wealth. As he embraced Jesus’ leadership, his greed morphed into radical generosity. What Jesus offered Levi 2,000 years ago, he offers you today, to come in and fellowship with you.
The offer still stands.
Jesus still invites.
The choice, as it was for Levi, is yours.