“You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence.” (James 5:5, ESV)
My guess is that we won’t find James 5:1 in one of those verse-a-day packets: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (James 5:1). Yet that verse and the contrast it presents captures the tension we face each and every day as disciples of Jesus Christ, seeking of first importance the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Earlier in his letter, James discourages believers from discrimination on the basis of station. He says they should not give preference in the assembly to a man wearing fine clothes over someone sporting shabby clothing. Beyond the level playing field of all being mired in the same sin and all being in need of the same grace, James levels particular criticism of the rich. “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” (James 2:6)
Now as he winds down his letter, James addresses the rich themselves. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.” (James 5:1–3).
What is James’s problem with those who have wealth? The problem is not their money but their love of money, and how that works itself out in their treatment of others. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you” (James 5:4–6).
James describes these rich men as loving things and using people, rather than loving people and using things. They operate in a manner contrary to the kingdom of God, as our Lord Jesus highlighted in His Sermon on the Mount: ““No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24).
James’ problem with the rich is not their money but their master. In serving money they oppressed the poor, ran roughshod over the helpless, and exploited whomever they could for their own gain. Rejecting the model of the Master, they sought to be served rather than serve.
How are those who have wealth to live? James would echo the amen to the admonition from the pen of the apostle Paul. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:17–19).
1. What is the kingdom core to James’ rebuke of the rich?
2. How does your handling of money reflect your heart’s ambition?
Psalm for reflection: Psalm 49
“Father in heaven, as You have forgiven me may I in kind forgive. As You have given to me may I in kind give. For Christ’s sake. Amen.”