Now listen, you rich people
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming
upon 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 workmen 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... Be patient, then, brothers... because the Lord's coming
is near" (James 5:1-8).
James wrote his letter in the first century, and his words of
warning were probably addressed to rich Jews, who lorded it over and oppressed
their poorer brethren -- among whom were found believers in the
These "rich men" of Israel, who cheated and lied and stole,
and hoarded up their ill-gotten treasures, did not know (or chose to disregard
the warnings) about the coming cataclysm. They were in fact living in "the last
days" of Judah's commonwealth, and the Jewish- Roman War of AD 67-70 --
culminating in the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the
dispersion of the surviving Jews -- was leading also to the dissolution of every
private fortune. In the face of the greatest national disaster God's people had
ever experienced, their morbid fascination with wealth and its accumulation and
enjoyment seems so pathetically childish.
Do these solemn words of James have meaning for our
generation? If, as so many signs indicate, we are living in another "last days"
period, then we cannot ignore James' warning to ourselves.
Christ told his followers:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in
heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in
and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also... No one
can serve two masters. 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 both God and
Money [or 'Mammon': AV]" (Mat
It has been said that he who puts money (or job, or
investments, or pleasures, or "consumer goods", or car, or home, or "the good
life", etc., etc.) first, and God second... is wise for a moment, but a fool
forever. Whatever forms one's "Mammon" takes, any obsession with material things
is, in Bible terms, the worship of a "false god", and thus "idolatry". (Is this
too harsh? The apostle Paul thinks not, for in Col. 3:5 he bluntly equates
"greed" or "covetousness" with "idolatry"!).
So, whatever form one's material "idol" takes, it will be
subject to "moth" or "rust" or thieves, and at any rate will become meaningless
at the moment of death or Christ's return -- whichever comes first for each man
or woman. What has happened before, in limited ways (as when Jerusalem fell in
AD 70), will happen once again, with a terrible vengeance upon those who put
their trust in uncertain riches. And this time, there will be no place to hide,
no place to escape, no place to "squirrel away" one's puny little cache of
"acorns" until the calamity has passed:
"The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day. The LORD Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty, for all that are exalted (and they will be
humbled)... and the idols will totally disappear. Men will flee to caves in the
rocks and to holes in the ground from dread of the LORD and the splendor of his
majesty, when he rises to shake the earth. In that day men will throw away to
the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to
worship" (Isa 2:11,12,18-20).
Back to James. While the Bible warns against any trust in
uncertain riches at all, it especially condemns the trust in riches obtained in
unscrupulous ways. In "A Christmas Carol", the old miser Scrooge is visited in a
dream by the ghost of his dead partner, Marley -- a specter who limps into
Scrooge's presence dragging behind him his chains of bondage -- the gold and
silver which he stole and hoarded during his wretched life, and with which he
could not bear to part, continued to burden him beyond the grave!
"Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a
balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in
extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set
your heart on them" (Psa 62:9,10).
"For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it...
People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many
foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the
love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have
wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1Ti
The theology of the parable is a trifle uncertain at this
point, but the moral is good and true, and seems to illustrate these words of
"Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying
out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord
Almighty" (Jam 5:4).
Within the last month, America has heard a modern cry very
much like this. It arose from the impoverished ghetto of south central Los
Angeles, a city known around the world as a mecca of the rich and glamorous.
Only a few miles from famed Rodeo Drive, where the world's elite "worship" at
the altar of Mammon, thousands of poor blacks and Hispanics -- mired in
unemployment and the working poverty of "minimum wage" jobs -- emitted a primal
scream of hopelessness and rage and resentment, and tried to burn their city
down around their ears.
There are many causes for such a state of affairs, not the
least of which is the drug-driven violence to which many of the poor in America
have fallen prey. And lawlessness and disorder and hatred and violence are sins
that the Bible strongly condemns. There were few "innocents" rioting and looting
in south central LA.
But the Bible also condemns the smug mentality of "I got mine;
to hell with everyone else!" And a rich nation which ignores the poor underclass
in its midst, which laments the "symptoms" but ignores the "disease", is sowing
the seeds of its own destruction -- even though it claims to be a "Christian"
Shortly before its defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, the
prophet Ezekiel compares the "godly" people of Jerusalem to those of Sodom, in
the most scathing of terms:
"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant,
overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty
and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them" (Eze
But, "be patient, brothers", says James, "the Lord's coming is
near." When he comes, he will implement a social welfare program solidly based
upon divine principles:
"The king... will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with
justice... He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children
of the needy; he will crush the oppressor... For he will deliver the needy who
cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak
and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression
and violence" (Psa 72:1-4,12-14).
For that day we wait with the greatest anticipation. And as we
wait, we try to see our material possessions for what they are in the eyes of
God, and to use them prudently, so that we may never be mistaken for the
oppressors of the poor and the powerless.
"The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him -- the Spirit of wisdom and of
understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and
of the fear of the LORD -- and he will delight in the fear of the LORD... with
righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for
the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with
the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked" (Isa