The Agora
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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 Messiah.

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 6:19-21,24).
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).

"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 6:7-10).
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!

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 James:
"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" nation.

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 16:49,50).
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).

"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 11:1-4).
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.

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