Wednesdays with James: Lesson Fourteen


Wednesdays with James
Lesson Fourteen: Business Ambitions and Rotting Riches

We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The third and final theme James discusses, we’ve called “Rich and Poor Must Meet the Tests of the Last Days” (4:13-5:12).

Today’s text reflects what James said in 1:10-11 — “and those who are rich that they are brought down low, since the rich will disappear like a wildflower. You see, the rich will be like the grass: when the sun rises with its scorching heat, it withers the grass so that its flower droops and all its fine appearance comes to nothing. That’s what it will be like when the rich wither away in the midst of their busy lives.”

Now look here, you people who say, “Today, or tomorrow, we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, and trade, and make some money.” You have no idea what the next day will bring. What is your life? You are a mist which appears for a little while and then disappears again. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live, and we shall do this, or that.” But, as it is, you boast in your pride. All such boasting is evil. So, then, if anyone knows the right thing to do, but doesn’t do it, it becomes sin for them.

Now look here, you rich! Weep and wail for the horrible things that are going to happen to you! Your riches have rotted, and your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and your silver have rusted, and their rust will bear witness against you and will eat up your flesh like fire. You have stored up riches in the last days! Look: you cheated the workers who mowed your fields by keeping back their wages, and those wages are crying out! The cries of the farmworkers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived off the fat of the land, in the lap of luxury. You have fattened your own hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned the Righteous One and killed him, and he doesn’t resist you.

(4:13-5:6, KNT)

These paragraphs address two different groups of people: (1) merchants, and (2) rich landowners. One of the main interpretive questions is whether or not any of these people are Christians, members of the community of faith. I find Peter Davids to be persuasive when he suggests that the first group James speaks to, the merchants, is likely made up of believers within the congregations, but the second group, “the rich,” is not.

Davids notes that James writes of “the rich” throughout this epistle in prophetic language of judgment and condemnation, whereas the merchants (whom he explicitly avoids calling “the rich”), are criticized but then exhorted to practice Christian behavior.

In terms of background, Davids says that in Palestine the “merchant” class was not necessarily a wealthy one, but “trade was seen as a way to obtain the fortune needed to purchase the estates on which the ‘good life’ might be lived.” However, the rich landowners he castigates in the second section are clearly in positions of luxury and power with the capacity and clout to oppress the lower classes.

Observe that James does not say that the Christian merchants should abandon their ambitions to build successful businesses. Rather, they should do their planning and work with God in mind, with the transitory nature of life in mind, and with the kind of humility that recognizes the grace by which we live and work each day.

A few years ago, a sublime song recorded by Keith and Kristyn Getty became one of my favorites, and I am reminded of it when I think of doing my daily work as a created human being and a Christian. It expresses well the attitude James is advocating.

On the other hand, James issues a graphic prophetic denunciation of the landowners outside the church who are oppressing the poor, enriching themselves at their laborers’ expense, and even “killing” them (in a judicial sense, most likely) for the sake of maintaining their own positions of power and wealth.

This “woe” message stands comfortably within the tradition of the First Testament prophets and of Jesus, especially as portrayed in Luke’s Gospel (see, for example, Luke 6:24-26, 12:13-21).

In his Sacra Pagina commentary, Patrick J. Hartin sketches out the setting in life of this text:

James reflects the social situation of Palestine during the first century C.E. The amassing of large tracts of land in the hands of a few wealthy and powerful individuals was a phenomenon throughout the Roman world. The Roman philosopher and writer, Seneca, also refers to this problem. Reflecting on the evils of greed or avarita, he shows how it has led to landowners seizing more and more property at the expense of the poor: “(Greed) adds fields to fields, expelling a neighbor either by purchasing (the field) or by harming (him)” (Ep. 90:39). This situation was evident in Palestine as well and conditions had been deteriorating over many centuries….Horsley (207-16) shows how the development of large estates throughout Palestine was largely due to the powerful rulers annexing land for their own use or granting land as favors for political reasons.

It is important to note, as Hartin does, that James was not writing directly to “the rich” (who would not have been present in the gatherings to listen to this epistle being read) but to the believers who were suffering under their oppression. As the prophets spoke to Israel about the nations and God’s righteous judgment in order to bring Israel comfort and hope, so James writes these words for his Christian audience to hear.

I do not think the approach James takes here means that he just wants them to wait and endure suffering as the only proper response to oppression or that he is averse to encouraging them to work for social and economic justice when possible. That call is also a vital part of the prophetic tradition. But underlying a distinctively Jewish and Christian approach to these matters is the recognition of a divine Judge who will one day balance the scales. That’s where James’s focus lies in this epistle.

• • •

Wednesdays with James

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33 thoughts on “Wednesdays with James: Lesson Fourteen

  1. By objective measures, I’m sure what you’ve said in your comment is true. But poverty is a relative thing, and the experience of being poor is had in comparison with what’s normal for the society around one. There’s no doubt, for instance, that it’s objectively better to be homeless in the US than in many places around the world; but the experience of being homeless is still one of being on the outside looking in at the rest of one’s society. I think much of the suffering in being homeless, and being poor, is the result of the awareness of having no place in one’s own society, and I think this is the same everywhere and in all times, even when adjusted for better objective local conditions for the poor. Anyway, it’s what I experienced when I was homeless.


  2. I can’t answer your first question, as it would be purely speculation. The story only tells us that Pharaoh gave Joseph carte blanche, to the point where Pharaoh considered himself greater only in title (throne) than Joseph.
    Gen. 41:40-45


  3. Would Pharaoh really have gone for a solution that involved funding the mass storage of grain out of his own royal coffers? I doubt it. He probably would have had Joseph strung up beside the baker five minutes after any such suggestion. But, fortunately, Joseph was astute enough to come up with a scenario that both served Pharaoh’s self interest and prevented mass starvation in Egypt and the surrounding nations.
    I don’t really see any universal political/economic precedents being set by the story of Joseph. And if human civilization is ever brought to its knees by a giant asteroid or nuclear war or a mega-pandemic or a zombie apocalypse, then you can expect all forms of government to be quickly replaced by emergency police states controlled absolutely by those already holding great wealth and political power. What other options would we have?


  4. –> “Paul sent Philemon back to his master. This is the typical moral evil of religious books.”

    Total BS. That’s the typical moral evil of the CULTURE at the time, not religious books. The LAW of ALL slave cultures said that runaway slaves were to be returned (and usually executed). In fact, if you read Philemon carefully, you’ll find that Paul sent Onesimus back to become a BROTHER, not to continue as a slave. There is even some evidence that suggests Onesimus later became prominent in the church.


  5. As prime minister for the Pharaoh, Joseph instituted a program to seize 1/5 of every farmer’s grain, then sell it back during famine years to hungry citizens and foreigners, amassing great wealth for Pharaoh. Yet Joseph was one of the few men in scripture who in whom no fault is explicitly ascribed.


  6. Back when “the 1%” became a meme to identify the rich, I would refer my friends to to see where they ranked on the list of the world’s richest people. One friend who was in college was working only during summer break (~3 months) at a part-time (20 hrs/wk) minimum-wage fast food job. He was in the top 20% income bracket of all people on the planet.

    One could argue that dollar in the USA doesn’t stretch as far as elsewhere, but by almost any measure, those who are relatively poor in the USA are rich compared to any other place and time in history.


  7. Properly speaking, the abolitionists failed: As you say, the fairly straightforward notion that ‘you can’t own someone else’ had to be promulgated at the point of a bayonet. It didn’t have to: the south could have just properly seen sense and given up. But they chose not to.

    In the bible, god kills many Egyptian soldiers to free the Hebrews. Is that not okay? But then again: the Hebrews themselves owned slaves. Would it not have been okay for those slaves to kill their owners to escape? How about christians? They owned slaves. Paul sent Philemon back to his master. This is the typical moral evil of religious books.


  8. Come on now. Plantinga is among the best philosophers, and has one of the most brilliant and logical minds, in the world. And you know it.


  9. Maybe there’s usually excess in your pockets for Starbucks or lunch at the bistro (don’t think I’ve ever been to a bistro), but I go to work with no cash or credit in my pockets (unless I have to get gas for the car) and scrape together change and coupons to get a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee every couple weeks or so. I’ve become convinced that when people say “we” around here they must actually be speaking French.


  10. …reminds me a bit of the Beatles, “so you say you want a revolution …”

    Which in turn reminds me a bit of Elvis Costello, Was it a millionaire who said ‘Imagine no possesssions’?


  11. —> “My father protected me: He didn’t just promise to bandage me up *after* I got hurt.”

    Your statement implies that he did allow you to get hurt, though. Why didn’t your father protect you from any and all pain and suffering?

    But here’s an interesting point that came to me recently after studying the Prodigal Son parable. Did the father enable the young son’s bad behavior? By giving him his portion of the inheritance before the proper time, did the father play a role in the young man’s downward spiral?

    If so…what role does God have in enabling our poor choices?

    (I have my own answer, but my mind did mull over that “enabling” idea.)


  12. “And for those of us who say “I’m not rich” just take a brief walk into the poorer areas of town and we will see how “poor” we are, in reality!”

    We have too much, too many choices, and are addicted to ‘buy now, pay later’

    I remember a really good friend who was raised as a Quaker saying ‘the kids need good schools, good shoes, good food, and good doctors;
    and everything else you can get at the public library or the Salvation Army.’

    I listened, and learned. 🙂 Nothing wrong with living simply.


  13. AND…we must take note that St John is speaking to CHRISYIANS about sharing THEIR wealth, as WELL as “the rich” in general.

    Too often we have the urge to point to “the other” when admonishing “the rich” while ignoring our OWN lives. And for those of us who say “I’m not rich” just take a brief walk into the poorer areas of town and we will see how “poor” we are, in reality!

    There is usually excess in our pockets for Starbucks, or lunch at the bistro, and the like, so yeah, we ARE rich in comparison.

    Let government do what government does, but don’t sanctify it by saying it is God’s work. It is usually work resulting from political motives or outright avarice, even IF it DOES give some relief to the “poor” (with strings attached, AND an expiration date!)


  14. Methinks you are stretching his point a little. He is implying that material justice would almost be the marxist ideal of to each according to his need from each according to his ability. Read his warning in which he speaks of taking away almost all riches and thereby doing away with the rich. That is what he defines as material justice, a full economic equality in which there is no rich and no poor. He then says that this type of equality cannot be achieved by force alone. But, he appears to say that this is the ultimate goal!

    Notice that he does not appear to believe that ultimately the difference between rich and poor are fully justifiable. Marxism is called a Christian heresy (by various writers) not because it wishes a more level playing field between the classes but because both the methods by which it achieves those goals and the pure materialistic analysis of the conditions of existence are clearly wrong. St. Chrysostom is saying that one cannot use external methods to reach the goal of full equality but must use internal methods.

    If you read more of his writings, you will be pleased to find that he often struck a moderate position. Thus, he has no problems with material justice of the type you defined, because these are achievable goals by governmental powers. What he is concerned about is that if you press it too far you will get a counter-reaction that may end up doing more harm than taking it a step at a time. You cited slavery, and it took the death of hundreds of thousands to change that. We did, as a nation, finally get to the point of no return and the trigger was pulled, but from Samuel Wilberforce in England to Harriet Tubman in the USA, the first goal was to do it by peaceful means. Instead society was torn apart and we still have the remains of that war troubling us even in the current political campaign. That is what Chrysostom was trying to avoid.


  15. If I remember correctly, St. John C. was not well treated by the powers that be.

    If James had the Temple Crowd in mind when he wrote 5:1-6, it was most certainly fulfilled by the Roman invasion and occupation of Judea of 70 AD. That’s kind of a funny way to make things right, but looking over history humans have always had a predilection for the rotating-felon system of government. So, the various revolutions and imperial collapses may be nothing more or nothing less than a Divine apparatus to keep the wealth aerated and distributed.

    Unlike J, I don’t expect God to be micromanaging human history, especially working out how to live together fairly and charitably, which is clearly Our Responsibility. We already tried to make him King by force, but that didn’t turn out well. “You ate the bread and were satisfied”, he said, nailing it.


  16. *Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow.*

    Material justice is, in fact, regularly accomplished by compulsion. Murderers and thieves are arrested, corrupt politicians cast down, laws changed, slavery abolished and schools integrated at the point of a bayonet.


  17. In the current political and economic climate, one of my favorite quote lines from James is that the wages that you have withheld cry out to the Lord of Hosts (alternate phrasing). Saint James says that the poor are not takers for expecting a better wage and better treatment. They are not trying to be paid above their station. Let me put in two quotes from Saint John Chrysostom, one found in a collection of his sermons called, On Wealth and Poverty (available on Amazon), and another as he gives a warning to would-be revolutionaries (reminds me a bit of the Beatles, “so you say you want a revolution …”).

    “If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” — St. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty

    But, as I said, he also warns the revolutionaries:

    “Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.

    Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.” — St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply


  18. Why does he allow conditions that require making-up-for? Not much of a god.

    My father protected me: He didn’t just promise to bandage me up *after* I got hurt.


  19. I truly believe that God does, in His time, balances the scales.

    I was talking to a young, Christian schizophrenic one day who asked me, “What did I do to deserve this?” I was truly struck by the question.

    I answered with what I truly believe, even to this day,
    “Steven, I promise you God will make it up to you one day.”

    He is that kind of God and I believe with all my heart; for His children, He will make it up to them.


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