“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 NIV)
James goes from the test of obeying God’s will in chapter 4 to the test of handling wealth in the beginning of chapter 5.
James begins with the same two words he uses to begin verse 13 of chapter 4: “Now listen…”. James does not use his typical term of endearment here. Instead, he uses a very pointed command to get his readers’ attention.
And whom is James addressing? Rich people, specifically, rich people who have obtained their wealth at the expense or detriment of others.
What is James’ message to these people? Your day of judgment is coming quickly.
What does James tell them to do? Weep and wail. What do these words mean?
- Weep – to cry out loud, to mourn, to sob aloud, as for the dead
- Wail – a loud cry, a shriek, like a parent’s reaction, upon learning of the unexpected death of their child
These are hard words! This is the most pointed test James has issued in his entire letter, and thus, must be taken very seriously.
Let me pause here and say that I believe James was addressing people in the church who claimed to be followers of Christ, but whose outward life indicated that their first love was money, not God. Why do I seem to state the obvious here? Some try to say that James was addressing those outside the church that were abusing the Jewish people in the church. I see several arguments against that premise:
- James addresses the guilty in second person (James uses the word “you” over and over, not third-person “they”)
- James’ style is to take on the subject in question directly with the person, not involving third parties
- James stays within the boundaries of his authority, which is the church. He has no authority over those outside the church who choose to gain wealth unethically or immorally.
It’s important to note the similarities of James’ writing to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:1-21 NIV)
Once again, the test of some external thing, like the handling of wealth, is really a test of our heart.
And how was this wealth gained?
- By not paying the workers who mowed the fields (the reapers who cut the grain)
- By not paying the harvesters of the fields (the threshers who separate the grain)
The field laborers were those in abject poverty, who lived literally from one day to the next to provide for their families. These so-called Christians would hire the laborers for the day, but not pay them at the end of the day. This was in direct violation of God’s laws (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
James says “you have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” James is using a word play here, basically saying, “You are invited to a feast where we kill the fattened calf. But you are not the honored guest; instead, you are the main dish.”
James ends this section by saying, “You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” James is saying that these so-called Christians will go to any means, even falsely accusing and killing anyone who gets in their way of accumulating wealth. And the sad commentary James adds? These folks, the innocent who are being abused and even murdered, do not even oppose those who seek their lives.
Strong words today… James is pointedly clear about the test of handling wealth. May we all look carefully in the mirror of God’s Word and ask the Lord to check our hearts.