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.
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.
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Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)
- Lesson Nine: Are You Not Discriminating among Yourselves? (2:1-13)
- Lesson Ten: The Old “Faith & Works” Debate — Completely Unnecessary (2:14-26)
- Lesson Eleven: Stressed-out Speech Sinks Ships (3:1-12)
- Lesson Twelve: Wise Up! (3:13-18)
- Lesson Thirteen: The Two Ways — Time to Choose (4:1-12)