Being the kind of person who naturally prefers to avoid confrontation, I admire James’ willingness to identify real problems and tackle them head on. In the section of his letter we’ll consider today, he addressed injustice, but he didn’t come at it from one direction. In a moment, we’ll see what he had to say to those who are oppressed and downtrodden. But we’ll start where James did — with his verbal shredding of those who perpetrate injustice, ripping people off, committing fraud, and living in ease on the backs of others who get no benefit from their labour.
James 5:1-6 “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.”
Wow! Do you have any doubts about how James felt about injustice? His words remind me of the way Jesus confronted the Pharisees, especially on the occasions recorded in Matthew’s gospel. In each case, Jesus and James went after the self-delusion of those they were addressing. In Jesus case — the self-righteous Pharisees. In James’ case — the unrighteous wealthy. Let’s consider James’ warning to the rich.
He began by getting the attention of the specific segment of his audience he wanted to address, “Come now, you rich.” Defining exactly who the rich might be, is a tricky proposition. Every one of us can point to people that we consider to be rich — at least they are richer than we are. So we may say, “Well, James isn’t talking to me; I’m not rich. That guy over there is rich, but I’m not.” On the other hand, I promise you that however poor you may think you are, there are people who look at you and think, “Now there’s someone who is rich. If I had his or her resources, I’d have it made.” So while you might look at others and consider them to be rich, others are looking at you and seeing you in the same light.
So how do we know if James is speaking directly to us, or not. Let me suggest two questions you might ask yourself. The first one is: Do you feel somewhat convicted by this passage? If you are spiritually sensitive, the Holy Spirit can draw your attention to things you’d rather ignore as you read the Bible. Perhaps this is one of them. You sense that the profile James has it mind fits you rather closely. If this is the case, pay attention and be prepared to act.
The other question is: Do you feel somewhat defensive when you read this passage and try to deflect its impact onto someone else? If you do, then, I suspect that you ought to pay attention to James’ comments here — not that you want to. It’s amazing how the conscious mind can raise arguments to silence the conscience. When you find yourself responding with the desire to defend yourself, it is a good idea to ask yourself why. Chances are, that the non-rational part of you may be more in touch with reality than the part of your mind which is able to manipulate your perceptions to keep you comfortable.
However, it is clear to me, that James wasn’t just trying to prick the conscience of everyone that someone else may consider better off than him or herself. Nor do I believe that James was picking on everybody who has been blessed with ample material resources. I know several very wealthy Christians who bless others out of their abundance and do a lot of good in their communities. James was specifically concerned with the unrighteous rich.
These were people who had defrauded others from what was rightfully theirs. James identified those who employed others and then didn’t pay them their wages. Thus, they enriched themselves by shortchanging those who served them. Not only did they benefit from their labour, but they benefitted a second time by not paying them for it. Meanwhile the labourers lost twice: They expended their energy on behalf of their employers, then experienced further loss by having their wages unjustly withheld.
James used words which his Jewish readers would have recognized immediately from another context. He wrote “The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.” That title refers to God as the “Lord of the armies of Israel, as those who are under the leadership and protection of Jehovah.” It would be a dangerous place to be, defrauding those who were under the protection of God. But notice the similarity of James’ words to those recorded by Moses.
Deuteronomy 26:7-8 “Then we cried out to the LORD God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.”
James reminded the rich who were exploiting the poor that God had rescued His people from other oppressors years earlier, bringing them out in power “with great terror and sith signs and wonders.” He told these unrighteous rich people to “weep and howl” for the miseries which would befall them. They had eyes only for the good life that the were enjoying at the moment and could not see that their riches were corrupted, their beautiful clothes were moth-eaten, their precious metals were corroded. And this corrosion, said James, was a picture of their own decaying flesh. He went on to tell them that they had “lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury.” And by taking the share of resources that rightfully belonged to their workers, they had condemned them to poverty and, in effect, had murdered them with starvation.
James’ inditement of the unrighteous rich is rather dramatic. Few passages in scripture are so powerful. This stands out as one of the most potent warnings about judgment to come. As we get to verse 7 we observe how James changed both his audience and his tone. From addressing the unrighteous rich, he turned to their victims. From high powered rhetoric, he shifted to gentle entreaty.
James 5:7-11 “Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See [how] the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord — that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.”
It seems that James knew that the exploiters would not quickly give up their financial advantage. So after he warned them of the spiritual danger, he offered some advice to their disadvantaged brothers who were suffering at their hands.
He urged them to be patient and gave them an example they could all relate to, since many of them were field workers in agricultural enterprises. He reminded them of the patience that is necessary as the farmer waits patiently for the anticipated harvest. No amount of fretting, or shouting, or protesting, or personal turmoil makes the tiniest bit of difference. Only with the appropriate cycle of rain, sunshine, more rain and so on, will fruit be produced.
The people James had in mind as he wrote were also looking forward to something. They were anticipating the coming of the Lord to usher them out of their oppression into the eternal joys of the Father’s presence. “You also be patient,” said James, “establish your hearts.” A free translation of the idea here is “hang in there; don’t give up.”
That’s some excellent positive advice, but James knew that suffering people have a rather unpleasant tendency. They complain. When someone is causing us grief, treating us unfairly, or taking advantage of us, one of the ways we comfort ourselves is to talk about it. We grumble and complain. We tell others about our emotional pain. We talk about the injustices. We verbally condemn those who are taking advantage of us. Who would find this blameworthy? It’s such a natural response to difficult circumstances.
Perhaps we might be shocked to learn that James warned against this behaviour — something most of us engage in without a second thought. He taught that grumbling could result in condemnation and, since they believed that the Lord could come at any moment, the Judge was at the very door. In other words, there wasn’t a lot of time for them to re-calibrate their thinking and adjust their behaviour.
Then, as he often did because his audience was largely made up of Jewish believers who were familiar with the Old Testament, he pointed to examples from that text. He reminded them that the prophets — those special few through whom God spoke to His people — suffered in every imaginable way, bearing it patiently and, for the most part, without complaint. As we look back on these people, we honour their memory, as James’ put it “we count them blessed.” Why? Because they endured.
At this point, James pointed out one specific example of unusual patience — Job. The mere mention of this name would bring to mind the story of one who lost everything: his business, his health, his material riches, his children, his home, and even his wife suggested he should just give up and die. As for his friends? They provided more condemnation than consolation, more cynicism than support, and more criticism than comfort. Yet, with all of the adversity, this man of faith endured, he persevered. His confidence in God was unshaken. Was he confused? Yes. Did he question God? Yes. Did he ever doubt God’s goodness and power? No. Here is his declaration of faith in God.
Job 19:23-27 “Oh, that my words were written! Oh, that they were inscribed in a book! That they were engraved on a rock With an iron pen and lead, forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”
Job persevered through loss and pain which few of us will be called on to suffer. In all of literature, he is the one to whom writers point as the supreme example of patience. So James does the same, knowing that his readers were familiar with Job’s story and that it was extremely unlikely that they will ever have to suffer as Job did. But even in the face of Job’s loss and anguish and the very real persecution that James’ first readers were experiencing the final assessment was that “the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.”
I have some friends who struggle mightily with the idea of a loving, merciful God allowing human suffering. I don’t pretend to understand it perfectly, but I recognize that, according to the Bible, humanity chose to rebel against this loving, merciful God and doing so has had consequences. Our sin does not affect God’s character in the least, yet it makes a profound difference in the way we experience our lives. We all suffer from the effects of our own sin and the sin of others — even when they do not intentionally try to hurt us, and certainly when they do.
The other big factor in reconciling the love of God with human suffering is the matter of time. Paul wrote that our afflictions are temporary as an experience, but have eternal consequences. His counsel was that we should not focus only the painful circumstances that surround us, but that we look forward to what is eternal. We are mortal, our bodies are made to return to the dust. But that is not the end of us. Those who have come to God through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ will receive a new body which will not be subject to deterioration and decay. Our new life in Christ, will be completed by our receiving a new body which will last forever. This is hard to grasp intellectually, but a wonderful truth to accept. It sets us free and allows us to follow the example of those who have gone before us.