Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you. (James 5:1-6, NLT)
As we begin the fifth chapter, we discover James’ second major warning to the rich. Having criticized their presumptuous behavior in the previous paragraph, he now turns to more specific offenses. Scholars are divided as to whether those addressed are believers who are part of the church. As in the previous paragraph, instead of the traditional “brothers and sisters,” he uses the phrase “Look here,” which would give reasonable cause to view the rich as those who are outside of the community of faith. Douglas Moo points out that it is possible that James is simply pointing out the miserable end of the rich oppressors to encourage the poor believers not to envy the rich and be reminded that God is the avenger of the wrongs they suffer. Given the overall context of the epistle, I tend to agree with this point of view.
The structure of this section is outlined by four indictments, beginning with the transience of the riches they have accumulated. Crops, clothes, and coins were the most common markers of wealth. While they signified wealth, these assets were not protected against inevitable depreciation. He uses the perfect tense, marking the certainty of their future corrosion. I believe James is subtly making the correlation between the corrosion of riches and the corrosion of the souls of the rich. In other words, as the riches waste away, so do their souls. Hoarding corroding wealth creates shrinking souls.
The second charge James brings specifically accuses the rich of defrauding their workers of their pay. The Old Testament law provided that workers should be paid at the end of each work day (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). In the case of the poor, each day’s wages was required to purchase their “daily bread.” So if the workers were not paid, it is quite possible their families would go to bed hungry. James is particularly strong on this offense, for the rich have actually committed two sins. First, they have not been sensitive to the plight of the poor and have not actively used their riches to alleviate their suffering. Second, they have withheld their riches from those who have actually earned their pay.
Indictment number three is the pursuit of luxury and opulence without regard to their responsibility to share with those who are less fortunate. Again, James is not speaking against wealth per se, but rather condemning those who have the ability to amass wealth who withhold help to the poor in favor of self indulgence. This charge is reminiscent of the parable Jesus taught in Luke 16 about a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus who laid outside of the rich man’s home longing for the crumbs that fell from his table. As with the other offenses, James again warns of a coming day of judgment.
The final indictment is more elusive, depending on how one interprets the identity of the “righteous man.” Some view the identity of the righteous man as Jesus, while others think that James is referring to himself in the third person as the kind of man the rich might persecute. At minimum, the righteous man should be viewed as those who are poor and needy who trust God for their deliverance. Even if the wealthy have not actively murdered them, they certainly have condemned the poor as undeserving, and their actions are taking the lives of the poor slowly and surely. The rich are not resisted because they have all of the power alongside all of the wealth.
Passages such as this are important because they challenge us to pause and evaluate our own relationship to wealth and security, as well as our personal commitment to alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged. Are we content? How much is enough? Are we secure? Do we have enough? I believe those are the two foundational questions we have to resolve as we steward our wealth. There isn’t a standardized answer for these important questions. But there is an answer for you.