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)
No one would want to be rich if they read this advice from James the leader of the church in Jerusalem. These are harsh words that make the steak you may have eaten last night sour in your stomach. How do you define if you are rich anyway?
I know that I am rich compared to the rest of the world. Does the fact that I have food, shelter and air conditioning mean that I am setting myself up for misery in the future? James seems to be focusing on a certain kind of rich person who should become aware of his true plight. He is talking about anyone with wealth and hoards it, doesn’t pay workers a fair rate, lives in luxury, self-indulgence, condemning and bringing death to the innocent.
When I think if it that way, I still can’t rule myself out of James’ blunt warning. I’m not sure if the workers who sewed the clothes I bought, or picked the blueberries I eat were paid fairly. I don’t have the time or interest to check out every purchase I make. I can only imagine that I have contributed to the poverty of the world by my purchases and that my participation in a global economy has left innocent people around the world crying out to God for mercy.
Why did James make such a sharp warning to the church in his one and only letter? Shouldn’t he be addressing these thoughts about those who were outside the fold? Wouldn’t the church-type people be beyond this kind of problem? Is James implying that poverty the only option for a true Christian?
I’m only writing about these verses because I don’t like them. I don’t think they are fair. I feel condemned by them. I sit here with writing on my laptop in my air-conditioned home, with a full stomach knowing that the world is full of hungry, hurting people.
One think I know for sure is that this passage causes me to realize that every choice I make about the riches God has given to me to manage matters a lot to God. He doesn’t give me riches so that I become careless in how I spend it and whether I am cheating anyone of a fair labor. God knows that my natural inclination is toward hoarding riches, using it in self-indulgent ways, or cheating workers out of a fair wage. He wants me to be thoughtful about how I spend the riches He has given me. It’s a huge responsibility. I need His help to make the right decision about how I spend what He has given to me.