As James’ first readers listened to his letter being read to them by the leaders of their Church one Lord’s Day, this paragraph must have come as a huge shock.
Here they are sitting together as Christians. Most of them (as we have repeatedly been told) were Jewish Christians who had fled persecution in Jerusalem. Some however would have been new converts … mostly Jews and maybe some Gentiles who had heard the word of Christ through this scattered community of Christians.
As their leader reads the letter he comes to this paragraph. It starts just like last week’s passage did with the word: “Listen”. In the Greek its two words which, literally translated, would mean: “Go to”. It was a phrase much like our “Come now” … or “Listen up” … “Hey wena!” It is an attention grabbing phrase. It’s meant to arrest their attention and get them to listen very closely. It indicates that this is a very urgent message. It was like typing with your caps lock on.
So today we will also pay close attention. My intention is to interrogate this passage with some questions which will hopefully enable us to dig into it deeply and “suck the marrow” out of it. Those questions will be Who, What, Why, How and When. Let’s jump right in.
The first question is “WHO” … or in this case TO WHOM is James talking?
Of course the whole community is listening … and James would have known that this was the most likely setting. So he makes it clear immediately that what he is about to say is directed specifically at some of them. Who?
The answer is found right there in verse 1: Now listen you rich people.
James is talking to people he calls “rich people”.
Now we already know that not many of them were rich. Most were poor because of their status as religious refugees. But clearly some had already begun to rebuild their wealth through trade. We saw last week how James had rebuked them for their eagerness to expand their businesses without consulting the will of God. So they had businesses. They were entrepreneurial. They had made a living for themselves all their lives and although they had lost a lot, it seems some of them had busied themselves rebuilding their lives and their wealth quite quickly.
As we read further and get to some of James’ accusations, we can surmise that he also knows that some of those who had been converted through the witness of the refugees were landowning farmers in the region where the Christians had settled. And in those days landowners were wealthy, almost without exception.
Now we must hasten to add that not all of the wealthy Christians would have been guilty of the sins James describes in his accusations. But you can be sure that he wanted all the wealthy Christians to listen up!
- Those who were rich and guilty needed to hear the warning … for sure … before it was too late!
- Those who were rich and innocent also needed to hear the warning before they slipped into the same sinful behaviour as their brothers.
- And on top of that, knowing our human nature, James knew for sure that all the poor people would be listening very closely too. Possibly they were themselves victims of the kinds of sins James is about to describe … and they would be listening with great eagerness to hear what God had to say about their situation through the apostle James.
So today this is a word for all of us:
- For some because we are wealthy now …
- for others because we will be wealthy one day.
- For some because we are poor now …
- for others because we will be poor one day … and
- for all of us because at its very heart it really is about how all of us as human beings ought NOT to relate to wealth.
WHAT is James’ warning to the wealthy?
In plain and simple English his warning is this: You are going to face judgment and harsh punishment for your current relationship to wealth.
He says in v.1 that there is “misery coming upon you”. Misery.
More harshly, he speaks in v.3 of their flesh being “eaten as if by fire.” Let’s call that Destruction.
Worst of all he speaks in v.5 of “the day of slaughter”. Death.
Note this: James is warning these people because he loves them. This is not the hateful condemnation of a self-righteous Pharisee. This is the heart-broken warning of a father in the faith who has observed from an enforced distance how people he loves and feels responsible for have taken a course which is leading them to misery, death and destruction.
If someone is rushing headlong down a road towards the edge of a cliff and are about to plunge to their death … and if you love that person … then you warn them … and you do so urgently!
James loves his listeners. He sees that their attitude towards wealth and their behaviour in relation to acquiring and using possessions is going to bring them to a place of misery, destruction, and death. They are not only missing out on true abundance of life in this world because they are too focussed on wealth and possessions … but they are proving by their relationship to wealth that they are not truly in a relationship with Jesus as their Saviour and Lord and are hence in danger of the judgment of God.
Like a prophet of old, James has seen where their current lifestyle is leading them and he MUST warn them. Like Amos crying out that if God’s people did not turn back from their ways of oppression and injustice there would come a day of disaster and destruction, James calls out to his people too … a cry of warning.
Why is this warning for the them? Why are they so at risk of God’s judgment?
Here James gives three reasons.
Reason #1: Useless Hoarding (v.3)
There were three main forms of wealth in those days. Grain or corn (i.e. crops of the field), clothing / garments; and precious metals.
James says in v.2-3 that they have “hoarded” all these forms of wealth. The Greek word is “thesauridzo”. Sound familiar. Yes, it is the root of our English word “thesaurus” which is a book that lists words in groups of synonyms and related concepts. The word means a “storehouse” or a “treasure trove”. So a thesaurus in English is a treasure trove of words.
The thing about a thesaurus is that you will never need all these words. They are stored up in this book and will never actually be used. THAT is hoarding. It is to store up possessions simply for the sake of having them. You don’t need them. You’re not using them. But you will not let go of them.
What examples can we suggest of hoarding today? Yes there is the compulsive hoarding of “stuff”. But more importantly there is the compulsive pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth. Riches for riches sake and because somehow we always think that we will finally feel complete and satisfied and safe for the future if we have that little bit more than we already have.
And what is that? It is idolatry. It is trusting in wealth rather than in God! This is why hoarding wealth is so dangerous, because it is an expression of where one’s faith actually lies. Remember there is a faith in God that does not save (James 2:14-26). These wealthy hoarders may have claimed to be Christians / followers of Jesus with faith in Him … but their hoarding spoke volumes about their claim and where their faith actually lay.
The tragedy for James’ readers / listeners … and for modern-day hoarders of wealth … is what Jesus says in his parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21. This man hoarded so much wealth that he had to build bigger and bigger barns … not knowing that the same night he would die … and then what good would any of that hoarded wealth do him? Nothing.
Hoarded wealth is meaningless. Crops will rot in the barns … moths will eat the clothing … and even (he says) the gold will rust. Now while pure gold and silver cannot rust, in those days gold and silver coins were not entirely pure. They were alloyed. Which means that with enough time, they could rust / corrode. So this again indicates just how much the rich person in James’ word-picture must have been hoarding. Their pile of gold and silver was so extensive that some coins lay there for decades without ever being used.
In this world, wealth can be gone in an instant in a stock-exchange crash or a run on a bank or an uninsured house burning down. And what’s more in eternity our hoarded wealth will be a witness against us that we did not truly trust our Saviour. So James says: “The corrosion of your gold and silver (hoarded and unspent) will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.”
Hoarding is senseless … it is life-destroying … and it is faith-destroying!
Reason #2: Unjust and Ruthless Acquisition of Wealth (v.4 and 6)
For James it appears that it wasn’t only the fact that these so-called Christians were hoarding their wealth and thereby showing their lack of true faith in Christ. It was also about HOW they had acquired that wealth.
They had essentially oppressed and exploited others and built their wealth on the back of other people’s suffering. They had withheld the wages of those who worked for them. They had underpaid their harvesters. And James even says that they condemned and murdered innocent men. Does he mean they literally killed people to gain money? Well probably not intentionally.
But … here’s the reality. In those days, all workers who mowed fields and all harvesters (the kinds of workers James mentions) were day labourers. They basically worked for a pittance. They queued in the marketplace in the morning and hoped to be called by one of the local landowners to come and work for the day in his fields. If they worked they got paid and took food home to their families. If they did not work, they and their families either ate on the charity of neighbours or they went to bed hungry.
When you underpay (or worse yet, withhold the pay) of a man who works as a day labourer … you are stealing food out of his children’s mouths. When you do this long enough or harshly enough … lives can literally be lost.
And this is what James is accusing them of. He is charging that they have been so unjust towards their workers … that they have essentially built their wealth at the expense of human lives. They have become wealthy on the back of the blood, sweat, tears and even the very lives of others.
Now, none of us is a farmer as far as I know … but if we employ anyone at all to work for us at any level whatsoever, we need to be seriously examining how much we pay them and how faithfully we ensure that they are treated justly … and that we are not taking advantage of others in order to unfairly advantage ourselves.
Reason #3: Self-indulgent Spending (v.5)
“You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.”
The wealthy to whom James writes his warning have lived to gratify their love of the easy and comfortable life, and to indulge themselves in luxurious living.
There is no doubt that the sin condemned here, in His Word, by God Himself (through James) is that these “so-called Christians” had made an idol of their own comfort and luxury and the money which made it possible. As Jesus said: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21) Their heart was filled with selfish desire and it was proved by the way they applied their wealth.
How might we see this same sin of self-indulgence manifested today? Well we live in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, I don’t think we need too much revelation from God to see that the majority of those who HAVE many possessions spend an enormous percentage of their finances on opulent luxury.
But let’s be careful now. The warning here is not for the unbeliever who does this. It is specifically for the person who wants to follow Jesus. That’s us. For us the question should be simply whether the way we spend the money in our possession is a good reflection of the character and behaviour of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So that is the WHY:
- Useless Hoarding
- Ruthless Exploitation
- Self-indulgent Spending
Now for the HOW!
How should we respond to this warning?
James actually starts this section of his letter with the answer. Look at verse 1 where he calls out to the unjust, self-indulgent, hoarding wealthy people:
“Weep and wail!”
This is simply a call to repentance. It is a call to look at oneself in the mirror … like he said in James 1:23-25 … and if one sees in the mirror a reflection of a hoarding, unjust, self-indulgent rich person … reel back from the mirror in horror and with a broken heart and then … for heaven’s sake … repent. Turn away from that behaviour immediately … run to God for His gracious and merciful forgiveness … and then change your ways. I mean … there can be no doubt that this is what James wants the Christians to do. Stop your evil behaviour … turn around … and start to live a live that is radically different because it is centred around King Jesus and the priorities of His Kingdom.
When you earn money:
- Earn your wealth by honest and righteous means …
- Do not oppress or exploit others to gain wealth.
- Work hard and earn your pay or your profit.
- Pay all your labourers a fair and living wage on time.
- Do not cheat at the market by selling things for more than they are worth.
- Be a righteous person … like Boaz in the book of Ruth for example who was both a righteous man and a wealthy landowner.
When you spend the money you have earned by hard work and wisdom, spend it knowing that the follower of Jesus has the responsibility not only to care for themselves and their family and other dependents to the best of their ability … but also to spend themselves and their wealth on behalf of the Kingdom of God and of others.
I considered dumping a long list of Scriptures in here which would make this point stick. But in the end and in the interest of time I only want to quote from 1 Timothy 6, where Paul (another apostle) wrote to his young disciple Timothy who was pastoring a Church and said the following. I think it speaks for itself, so I will end with it. But just before that … I said there was another final question to answer: WHEN? When must we repent? Answer NOW!
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
17 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.18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.