Come now, you rich people, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
(Jesus) Luke 6:24-25
When compared to the rest of the world, most Americans live in the lap of luxury, so it is not surprising that many of us become uneasy when we read what Jesus and James had to say about rich people. Some of the Lord’s harshest remarks were directed toward the wealthy.
The fifth chapter of the Letter of James echoes the words of Jesus and brings four charges against the rich. But before we look at the indictment James brings, let’s get clear about who is being addressed here. Verse 4 identifies the accused as wealthy landowners, a group that is often condemned in the Old Testament for greed and exploitation. They are not criticized for being wealthy; they are rebuked because they are consumed by avarice, and they are unconcerned about the people who work for them. So the passage is not addressed to all rich people, but to those who will not submit to God. James is speaking about nonbelievers who use their wealth to take advantage of others, and he makes four accusations:
The first charge is selfishness. Instead of laying up treasure in heaven, they hoarded wealth on earth, and James condemns them for it: Your riches have rotted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days (5:2–3). James says that not only will their wealth rot–on Judgement Day it will be used as evidence against them. Jesus’s counsel stands in stark contrast: “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” (Matthew 6:19-21).
The second charge against the unrighteous rich is fraud. James says, Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts (5:4). The wealthy landowners were pragmatic, and anything they could do to reduce payroll was considered. Poor and desperate people were often hired for less than the job was worth, and the landowner pocketed the profit, a practice that has continued to this day. But employers then and now should take note–God is not okay with the “take advantage of every law and IRS loophole to maximize profit” mentality that is standard practice in the United States. When the wealthy use their power to manipulate the poor, they may be lauded by their peers for their savvy business sense, but one day they will answer to God for the people they defrauded.
The third charge is self-indulgent living: You have spent your years on earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter (5:5). James describes people who are totally focused on life’s pleasures and oblivious to the doom they are bringing upon themselves. He is talking about nonbelievers, but followers of Jesus would be foolish to ignore his warning about the allure of wealth–we are all susceptible to that temptation. The apostle Paul, speaking to Christians, said, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
The fourth accusation is premeditated murder: You have condemned and murdered the innocent people, who do not resist you (5:6). This charge was true on two levels. The practices of the wealthy had deprived their workers of food and the ability to provide for their families. This was equivalent to a death sentence. But the murders James speaks of were also taking place in public. Christians were being executed for following the teachings of Jesus. Stephen had been martyred a few years before James wrote this letter, and within a few years of writing it, James, too, would be condemned and murdered for his faith in Jesus.
Four crimes, all tied to warnings about the dangers of wealth. Many succumb to the call of riches and fantasize about pleasures money can bring, but some of us have chased that dream and ran into a wall. We discovered a basic law of the universe: we cannot put ourselves first and God first at the same time, so we need to determine our priorities by asking: am I more interested in amassing wealth, pleasure, and power? Or am I more interested in becoming an apprentice of Jesus and living according to his plan? How we answer those questions will ultimately determine our destiny.
Some people do not understand why God is so interested in what we do with our money. If you wonder about that, consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 6: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Why is God so concerned about what we do with our money?
Because God wants our heart, and our heart will always be where our treasure is.
Homework: Reflect on the four crimes James outlines and think about how these attitudes still prevail today. Then spend some time thinking about what Jesus said in Matthew 6:19–21. Where are your “riches”?