(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on November 8, 2015)
Those words usually are not an introduction to good news, are they? And here in James 5, they open up a scathing rebuke. Turn with me to James 5, and follow along as I read verses 1-11.
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.
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:1-11, TNIV)
You don’t need me to point out that these are harsh words, that there isn’t really anyway to put a nice spin on them. Like the most convicting of the Old Testament prophets, James is pointing out the danger, futility, and damage that comes from hoarding wealth, selfishly pursuing luxury, and taking advantage of others for your own financial gain.
There’s no explaining away the strong words to the wealthy.
We’re coming to the end of our journey through this letter from James, so I took time again to read through the whole letter in one sitting.
Since this section is on my mind, something stood out when I read the whole letter: almost every practical example that James gives for living out our faith is related to money or wealth in some way. Chapter 1, give from your resources to care for orphans and widows. Chapter 2, don’t show favoritism to those wearing fine clothes and discriminate against the poor. Don’t just use words when you see someone without food or clothing-take action!
Chapter 4, you fight because you desire things you don’t have, you covet things you want. You’re making all these plans to do business and make money, scheming to get ahead. But God has other things for you to be concerned with. Don’t miss it!
The warnings here in chapter 5 have also been seen before. In chapter 1, verses 10-12 are saying exactly what these verses in chapter 5 are: wealth is going to fade and pass away, but patient endurance and perseverance to do what God intends is what will last for the long haul. Chapter 2 reminded us that God has already chosen to stand with the poor, reminded us that it’s the rich who are exploiting and dragging to court.
So without a doubt, this isn’t something to ignore. Wealth in comparison to others, and what we do with it, is one of the primary concerns for James as he writes this letter.
I want to draw our attention back to one phrase back at the very beginning of the letter.
Unlike Paul, who often wrote to the Christians in a specific city, James wrote his letter to be carried around to many places. He focused his attention on the Jews rather than the Gentiles–verse 1 says that he writes “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.”
The twelve tribes are the tribes of Israel, the Jews who have chosen to follow Jesus. At this time in history, this led to a double danger. Christianity itself was often persecuted by the Romans, as it went against the worship of Caesar that the empire enforced. And believing in Jesus as the Messiah led to persecution by the Jews, leading to many Jewish Christians being scattered to far-flung parts of the empire.
James is not writing to people who have power or wealth. He’s writing to scattered people, struggling to survive, people doubly rejected by Rome and Jerusalem. In many ways, he’s writing to refugees. So when James holds nothing back with his harsh words for the rich, he can do this fairly easily without worrying about offending…because there weren’t rich Christians by and large.
One of the commentaries I read made the analogy to Winston Churchill’s speeches during World War II. Churchill often directed sharp words toward the Nazis, but that was a rather easy thing to do. They weren’t really the target audience; his British people were. And by attacking the Nazis mercilessly, he gave hope to Britain.
This, the commentator said, is similar to what James is doing. Writing to poor and exploited Christians, he could rightly assume that they would be cheering him on in his attack of the wealthy. Telling how wealth was going to turn against the rich was an encouragement to the poor, and it reminded them not to envy and desire wealth, but rather to turn in a much different direction-to wait patiently for God.
James seems most concerned that the Christians to whom he’s writing not envy or try to become like the rich.
As the centuries have gone by, things have happened that James probably never imagined. At times, the church itself has hoarded wealth rather than care for those in need. Some today teach that faithfully following God will lead to receiving wealth and other things that seem very much like the things James condemns here.
You and I have to face the reality that these words, written to encourage poor Christians to stay centered on Jesus, may become words that challenge and convict us.
There are layers of challenge here that go deeper than the other references in James, go deeper really than any other place in the New Testament.
First is the reminder that fine clothes and gold and silver are not going to last forever. They don’t last beyond death. They aren’t worth the attention and focus we so often give them, nor can we be assured of security by pursuing wealth. This is just like many of the other warnings in James, that wealth as a goal is a fickle thing.
But James goes further and deeper. Wealth and luxury are not just deceptively insecure, they are dangerous to us. Rather than evidence of God’s blessing, they actually “testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.” We think money can be our tool to security and happiness, but it often turns on us and becomes our master, controlling our thoughts and desires and goals.
And James goes further still. Not only is wealth temporary, not only can it harm and corrupt the one who has it, wealth becomes one of the great vehicles for injustice, oppression, and hurting others. The example given are people who so focus on hoarding wealth that they don’t even pay what those working for them rightly deserve.
“What then?” Chrysostom from the early church writes. “What then? Has luxury been condemned? It certainly has–so why do you continue to strive for it?”
It’s a good question. And I’m tempted to quote the great George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” after Clarence the angel tells him there isn’t money in heaven.
“Well, it sure comes in handy down here, bub.”
I guess I just gave into the temptation and did quote him…but only to acknowledge that sometimes we need the clear, strong, black and white sharpness of people like James, because we do live in a world that functions on money and we all have needs for good things for those we love; for shelter and food and education.
James reminds me how easy it is for me to get my priorities out of line. We have a mortgage. We have college bills coming for many years for our kids. We have parents who may need care. But pursuing wealth is not going to bring lasting security. And the deeper challenge here is to look at the ways that my lifestyle comes at the expense and exploitation of the poor. I may not be so callous to not pay those who do work for me. But we all are becoming more and more aware of the ways our economic choices, our purchases have an impact around the world.
Two quick examples, and I know you can think of many more. Our own Mark Thompson gathers, roasts and sells “Fair Wage” coffee. We use it here at the church, and you can buy it from him directly and just down the street at Naps. He’s made an entire business based on face to face relationships with coffee growers, where he can be sure that every worker along the supply chain is making a fair wage. I love that practical way of living out James 5!
Here’s another. There’s an app for your phone that scans the bar code on something, and it automatically gives you information on the business practices of the company and that specific product, so that you can be informed before you makes purchases. It’s called Good Guide. Another excellent idea in our complex world for trying not to have my cost savings come at the expense of someone elsewhere who is poor.
The reality here is that James joins the Old Testament prophets to remind us loud and clear that God isn’t giving advantages to the rich like our world does.
Rather, Ralph Martin writes: “As on other occasions in the letter [James] places God on the side of the poor.” While James assumed that those he originally wrote to would hear this as good news, as God joining “us”, we have to face the possibility that we may be like the ones James writes so scathingly about.
Lasting security is found in God, not in wealth. God choosing the “side” of the poor means at least two very important things: tangibly caring for the poor is an act of love towards God; and pursuing wealth, whether for luxury or security, leads us away from God. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33)
God will be faithful. That’s the good news that comes in verses 7-11. The original, scattered, poor, doubly persecuted Christians who received this letter would have understood it like this:
“Be patient! Sure things look bad now, unfair, like you have nothing and the rich are winning and against you. You’re tempted to look for the quick fix or to be like them, cutthroat in your pursuit of what you want. I know the world doesn’t look fair, but God has taken your side. God will make this right! All that wealth isn’t going to last. God hasn’t forsaken you. Just like the farmer waits patiently in this desert country for rains in the right season, just like God makes the crop grow if we till the soil and wait, God is on the move. God is on your side. God will take care of you even when things look their worst, like they did for Job.”
The coming of the Lord mentioned in verse 8, the Judge standing at the door in verse 9…we can often misunderstand them.
Here in James 5, it’s not so much about Jesus returning to save our spiritual souls, or judging our entrance to heaven. This is a hopeful word to the poor and oppressed. The return of Jesus is near, the return when he sets things right, when he corrects the frustrating part of this world where often those who don’t do right seem to be rewarded while those who do the right thing get stepped on. It’s like when kids say, “When mom gets here you are so busted!” Be patient! Jesus is coming to make things right.
We’ve seen this theme of patient endurance all through the letter. It rests on the hope of God acting. The sharp condemnation of injustice goes with the call for patient endurance. Sometimes, in history and even today, the church corrupts this. If teachers in a position of power do nothing but tell the poor to be patient and wait for God, it’s a horrible injustice.
A wealthy church, those with wealthy privilege, must look first at the words of condemnation rather than speak the words of patience to the oppressed. But the quiet hope is there for all of the poor and oppressed. God has chosen where to join, and it is with you…with us.
May we let God’s Holy Spirit challenge and convict us where we are setting our minds and hearts on wealth that won’t last, or trying to get security that it can’t bring. May we turn our attention, focus and desire toward God…caring for the poor God has sided with, and trusting God to bring us all we need…now and for eternity.