Book of James Lesson Eleven
by Dr. Michael Cochran
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BOOK OF JAMES BIBLE STUDY
LESSON #11 - (James 5: 1-6, NIV)
TITLE: WARNING TO RICH OPPRESSORS
DR. MICHAEL COCHRAN
APPLICATION: My money is not protection against the judgment of God.
JAMES 5: 1-2
1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.
The other side of the issue of the greed of the wealthy, as mentioned by James, is the Scriptural appeal for all Christians to be good stewards. Stewardship is such an overused word in Christian circles it sometimes makes us want to fall asleep when we hear the topic mentioned. Generally, there is at least one stewardship Sunday a year, at the time the new church budget is presented, that reminds us we are to be good stewards and help the church make its budget.
That kind of handling of stewardship is good as far as it goes, but Biblical stewardship goes much further and covers much more. Stewardship is really the recognition that God is sovereign over His entire creation and especially over the resources He puts at our disposal. God owns it; we use it; and so we must use it God's way. The false idea that what is mine is mine alone, and any increase in my resources is for personal benefit, appeals only to human greed.
The abusive rich of whom James writes come in for ringing condemnation by James. These people apparently attend the same congregations as do the poor, there not having been time in the early church for congregations to become separated by class or racial characteristics. This makes their treatment of their poorer brothers and sisters all the more reprehensible to James. These rich people have been cheating on wages and living as though there were not a God in Heaven who judges those who mistreat the poor.
This is shocking behavior for anyone who claims to be related to Christ. But perhaps it should be remembered that the rich of James's time were accustomed to acting this way. The Christian teaching of love and respect for all persons would be utterly revolutionary to these new believers. Let's look for a moment at the customary life-style of the rich of James's day.
Wealth consisted primarily of three things in the ancient world: food, clothing, and precious metals. The person who had an abundance of all three things was exceedingly wealthy indeed. It is these things that James refers to in verses 2 and 3. Each reference indicates how impermanent are the things to which our affections may be attached.
If “your wealth has rotted” refers to food as some commentators suppose, then James is reminding his readers of the foolishness of hoarding something that cannot last. The hot climate of the Middle East would make food preservation exceedingly difficult. Unlike today, when farmers can put their grain in gigantic dryers to take out the excess moisture, and then store that grain for several years in huge storage bins, the ancient landowner would know the experience of seeing his goods rot away in the heat of the sun and the moisture of the rain.
Food was also a sign of status in that the Roman culture was used to giving exceedingly lavish banquets at which hundreds of wealthy nobles would gorge themselves to the point of vomiting on the excesses that luxury provided. The rest of the populace of the ancient world would lead a more hand-to-mouth existence, making the contrast between the rich and the poor all the more stark.
As for clothing, the Scriptures, warns against ostentatious display (see 1 Peter 3:3). The adornment of the Christian is to be inward rather than outward. Thus, the stark contrast with the presumptuous rich who have seen their beautiful garments eaten up by moths. Gold embroidery and purple dye are little protection from even the humblest insect.
JAMES 5: 3-6
3 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. 4 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. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
The reference in verse 3 to gold and silver corroding is a bit confusing. Gold and silver don't corrode, so what can James mean? It seems likely that what he is saying is that gold and silver are about as useful to the rich as less valuable metals that would corrode, such as iron or bronze. James's statement is to be taken in the context of the “last days.” Numerous references in the New testament indicate that the last days of this era commenced with the inauguration of the church. In light of this, James is saying, what is the point of storing up gold and silver that can do you no good in the coming Kingdom? You might as well have a treasure room full of rusting metal!
Anyone who was wealthy enough to possess extra food, rich clothing, and gold and silver was very likely, from James's perspective, to have gotten those goods by cheating the poor. In James's day, the poor had little political influence and very little protection from the oppressions of the rich. Their situation was not that dissimilar to Naboth's during the days of King Ahab (see 1 King 21). Naboth at least had the protection of Jewish precedent (which Ahab got around), but even that would not have been the case during the New Testament times. True, Roman citizens had some protection and status before the law, but Rome was an oligarchy; for the most part ruled by powerful, wealthy people who kept the mob at bay by giving them food and entertainment in the form of the gladiatorial combats.
No wonder James's outrage then when he says that such people should “weep and wail.” Although they have the upper hand in this life, they are going to come under God's judgment. Their howls of sorrow will not be the signs of genuine repentance but the wailings of those who have had their rewards in this time only to lose out for all eternity.
We don't peak much of judgment today, and yet judgment is one of the prominent themes of Scripture. In fact, it is so prominent that not to see it is like missing the forest for the trees. The apostle Paul often referred to the judgment to come while giving his testimony in the Book of Acts (see Acts 17; 24). And Peter certainly refers to judgment in his epistles. These mentions of judgment are not scare tactics to manipulate the unconverted; rather they are assertions of people of conviction that God, because of His holy character, must punish unrighteousness, that there must be a summing up of all that has been done contrary to God's will with resultant rewards and punishments meted out.
When James says that “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty,” he is warning that unrepented wrongdoing will not be overlooked. The poor have some measure of comfort in knowing that there will be a settlement for the wrongs they have suffered.
After reading these first six verses in chapter five, it may be well to ask, What is there about wealth that we need to be on guard against in our own lives? After all, today's average middle-class Christian probably has more goods and a higher standard of living than most of the upper crust of the days of the apostles. Though we may not have the unbridled power that the Caesars possessed, we certainly have to call ourselves rich in comparison to many parts of the world today.
The Bible does not seem to call upon us to give away all of our possessions to insure our spirituality and heavenly reward. That would, after all, be rather simple. But what really seems to be required is that we keep our perspective and realize where our wealth comes from. It comes as a gift from God to be used wisely and charitably.
We must also guard ourselves against every form of greed. What has made the wealthy store up their goods—even though it is pointless to do that in these last days? What is it that has made them keep back wages from the poor laborer? It is their greed. Greed doesn't have a reason for wanting more and more; it just does. The more we have the less we are satisfied and the more we want.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
1. What should a Christian do to correct exploitation of the poor?
2. Is it possible for an individual Christian to do anything to correct injustice?
3. What are the practical implications of the truth that material goods are transitory? What does this truth mean to you personally?
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