There have been many writers who have taken on the charge to describe the conditions of the world around them and to give their readers insight into the need for change. Our own Declaration of Independence used most of its space to describe the tyranny of King George against the American Colonies and the consequence of those abuses; namely, the need for the American Colonies to abolish the established relationship with the King and his government. The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence was that governments were instituted to protect and defend God given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In a like manner, James, the author of our New Testament reading, took on the charge to describe some conditions that were of concern to him and the consequences of those abuses. James said that his letter was written to the Twelve Tribes scatter among the nations. This has been taken to mean that James is writing to early Christians who had been raised as Jews and then came to accept Jesus as Lord. As such, we should view James’ writing as to Christians describing conditions within the Church. Those conditions were not all peaches and cream.
James described tyranny and corruption within in the early Church, particularly among the people with money. James warned those with money of the severe consequences of abusing those without money. Then, James described the need for the faithful of the early Church to hold fast to the life and to the freedom granted by God through Christ who was uncorruptible, faithful, merciful, and compassionate. Though James wrote his letter centuries ago, the issues of wealth inequalities and abuse continue to exist today, even within the contemporary Christian Church.
James began describing the conditions most concerning to him with broadside of verbal cannon fire much like a fighting ship of days bygone days. James wrote, “1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” In literature, writers are encouraged to begin their work with what is called a “hook” sentence. A “hook” sentence is one that grabs the reader’s attention and gives them a reason to keep on reading. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” That is an A+ “hook” sentence because everyone, rich and poor alike, will want to read on. The idea that rich people would weep and wail in misery is the opposite of the conventional wisdom for rich people. The expectation for those who are rich is a carefree and comfortable lives, not lives marked by misery. James’ words destroy the Jewish conception that the possession of wealth was an indication of God’s favor. Instead of favor, the rich would face misery or God’s wrath.
James, the brother of Jesus, was sharing spiritual insights with the early believers and followers of Jesus and revealed here that the rich will face misery. In James’ day, there was no real middle class. For the most part, people were either rich or they were poor. The poor worked daily for the resources to eat that day. The rich, of course, stockpiled not just the necessities of life but also the luxuries of life. Now, we might ask ourselves, “Am I hooked to what James said because I consider myself rich or because I consider myself poor?” The answer to that question depends on our understanding of wealth. In the United States, our perceptions of wealth and poverty may be askew compared to the world at large. Consider for a moment that if you woke up this morning and you had food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep. If so, then you are richer than 75% of the people in the world. If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy.
With those statistics in mind, we can ask ourselves, “Am I rich or am I poor?” as we read again James’ opening sentences, “1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 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.” James was pointing out that the rich had material goods and clothing in abundance such that some of it was beginning to rot and be eaten by inserts. Their goods and clothing were rotting and spoiling because it was not needed to meet their own needs and not being shared with those who were in need. The rich had secreted money and even it had sat unneeded for so long that the coins were beginning to corrode. James said the rot, spoiled, and corroded excess unused wealth will be the evidence to testify against the rich of their love of money and their indifference toward the poor. That evidence would convict them of their lack of genuine love for God and for their neighbors. James was making clear that hoarding wealth is a sin of omission; the act of not acting. We will recall that last week James spoke about the sin of omission when he wrote, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17). That is the sin of omission; the act of not acting, the act of knowing what ought to be done and not doing it.
Now James was not done with those who had saved up resources to the point of rot, spoilage, and rust. James went after those who were involved in the sin of commission; that is, they acted against the poor. The sin of commission is the act of knowing what ought not be done and doing it. James wrote, “4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers 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 the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” James was citing that the corruption within the early Church was so complete that love, friendship, compassion, humility, and empathy was lacking by the rich.
James’ words are an extension of those Jesus taught his disciples about the love of money. Jesus taught, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12:38-40). The Apostle Paul expressed Jesus’ teaching this way, “9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 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” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The love of money is a serious problem for the Christian life because we can only have one first love: God or money, but not both. James was warning the rich that their love of money was evil and unchristian. The rich were reflecting the progressive wisdom of the world which James described as earthly, then unspiritual, and finally demonic. We, individually and as a local church, must examine our love. Is it for possessions, fine things, and money or is it for God?
To the faithful of the early church, James said, “7 Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about” (James 5:7-11). James was encouraging the faithful, particularly those who were poor, to be patient and hold fast to the Lord, Jesus Christ, who would set things right. In and through Christ, eternal judgement would be brought upon the rich or anyone who lived by earthly, unspiritual, and demonic wisdom and the faithful would be rewarded eternally. James may have had in mind the story Jesus told of such a judgement. “19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16:19-23). Abraham speaking to the rich man said, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25). Jesus was revealing to us the fate of those who love their money more than God and more than their neighbors. Coldness, indifference, and cruelty in this life will not go unpunished and misfortune, difficulties, and struggles of the faithful will not go unrewarded.
How do we know God will act to reverse the fortunes of this world? James concluded this section of his letter with the truth, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). God will make things right because he is compassionate and merciful. But the faithful must be patient. James cites the need for patience four times in this passage. Patience is difficult for us, especially in our culture of instantaneous living. We can communicate with people on the other side of the world as quickly as we can with the person next to us. We can cook food with microwave ovens in a small fraction of the time earlier generations ever thought imaginable. We can travel at 500 miles per hour in aircraft to destinations that 50 years ago may not even be reached in a lifetime. If Jesus is going to set things right, then we want and even feel entitled that he does so now. We want our vindication in the certainty of today not in the uncertainty of tomorrow.
Jesus understood our need for assurance that God was compassionate and merciful. That is why he gave the faithful a sign and reminder of compassion in the present and mercy in the future. On the night when Jesus was betrayed for a mere 30 silver coins, Jesus shared a meal with his faithful followers. At this meal, Jesus took the daily bread, the sustenance of life. He blessed the bread, giving thanks to God for his provision of their needs. Then Jesus broke the bread into smaller pieces and gave it to his followers. Jesus said, “Take and eat, this is my body.” In the certainty of the present moment, Jesus reassured his followers that God saw them, heard them, loved them, and was compassionate upon them.
Jesus then took a cup of wine. Again, Jesus blessed the wine, giving thanks to God for the fruit of the fields. Then Jesus gave the cup to his followers and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). The covenant was an unbreakable agreement established by God that His mercy would be on the followers of Jesus. The blood of Jesus represented in the cup was a seal giving certainty to the mercy of God for eternity. What was required of Jesus followers? They must take and eat of the bread and drink from the cup and follower Jesus. In following Jesus, God, not money becomes the love of life. God given wisdom and not earthly wisdom guides and instructs lives of Jesus’ followers. In following Jesus, compassion and mercy found in God is found in abundance in the lives of his followers and the distinction between rich and poor is to melt. The rich shall use their resources to meet the needs of the poor. James said earlier in his letter, ”Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)
Let us come to the table of the Lord as his followers, patient in the present, and assured of the future. In taking the bread and the cup, let us be renewed in our faith and in our desire to share the riches of Christ and the riches of this world as an expression of our first love for God. Amen and Amen.