James 5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! (NKJV)
This is one of those lessons that have to start with a preface and a definition or people will either immediately 1) be offended, or 2) think it doesn’t apply to them.
There is nothing inherently sinful about being wealthy (we better hope not, as you will see from the definition). There nothing inherently pious or holy about being poor either. We are experts at being prideful no matter what social status we have. It’s our sin nature at it’s best. So don’t think this message is slap at “the rich” which has become the social-political weapon of choice in the West today (class envy… demonizing the “rich” so the “poor” will vote for you). That should lead us to an obvious question though… what does the Bible mean by “rich”?
The Bible defines being “rich” as having more than what we need to survive TODAY. In other words, not worrying about food or clothes for tomorrow. “Tomorrow” is not symbolic for the coming weeks, months or years. Literally, TOMORROW.
Americans, Europeans and general “the West” don’t realize or remember that life for most people for most of world history was basically this: wake up, work that day for bread and necessities… get up tomorrow and do it again. This continues to be true for much of the world today.
Now, I’ll be the first politically incorrect person to declare that obvious reason for war torn, poverty stricken nations almost always parallels that countries abject rejection of God and Christianity. Where ever you find a country that embraces God, true equality (the Christian version, not the current politically correct version) and genuine freedom, you usually find prosperity, personal responsibility and a flourishing society.
IT IS SUPERIOR CULTURE. Gasp!!! Did I really say that???? Aren’t all cultures and societies “equal”, just some of us are more “fortunate” and therefore should feel guilty about our “luck”? No. That is socialistic hogwash. There are lifestyles, principles and cultures that are superior in their results and success. I mean more specifically there is ONE that is superior: a culture built on Godly fear, humility and Biblical principle. How “intolerant” of me.
The Misery Is On The Way
Now that you know you aren’t “holy” because you think you are poor, and in reality if you are reading this, there’s a 99% chance you are rich by Biblical standards, let’s cut through all the sugar coating and see what James is teaching us about our wealth. In his typically blunt and practical fashion, we find timeless principles about wealth that transcend all of man’s designs about economy, prosperity and materialism (in other words, what James says is true regardless of what system is in place, ie. capitalism, socialism, etc.). Starting with James 5:1:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!
Can you imagine Dave Ramsey or Joel Osteen starting out a message with that? Okay, of course you can’t imagine America’s Favorite Pastor making that kind of statement. He’s not even called to preach about sin. But I can definitely picture Dave getting your attention like that which is exactly what James is doing. He is saying “pay attention, this is serious…” He’s using a triple exclamation point, a screaming alarm, big red flashing lights verbally. Pay attention, you rich (you and me by Biblical definition), James wants to teach you something very important about money or more specifically the ungodly accumulation and use of money. That’s the point of these six verses: condemnation for dishonorable ways of obtaining and misusing wealth thereby dishonoring God who was the One who blessed you in the first place.
Who’s Your Real God
Keep in mind that James is addressing professing Christians in his letter. So we can draw the conclusion from these verses he had seen and needed to deal with people who claim Christ but still had a completely worldly outlook about money and business. It is a dire warning of the consequences for those who put on Christ in name but whose real god is money. In our age of materialistic, positive-thinking, ear-tickling Christianity, it’s no wonder we don’t hear this passage taught often.
v. 2-3: Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days.
Ouch, that won’t preach today. What’s his point? All riches in this life not invested in heavenly treasure are doomed to destruction. They will rot, be stolen, decay…. lost to disease, theft or disaster. No matter how much you accumulate or hoard, wealth not obtained and used to God’s glory is destined to bring us misery and judgment, not fulfillment.
James points out one particular mindset: those who heap up treasure for the last days. In other words, they believe that if they have a big enough bank account, retirement fund and material resources, they will be immune to the insecurities and troubles of life. How foolish… the poorest man is more secure in his trust of God than then richest rich in his wealth. Man learns nothing from history. Even if James didn’t declare this truth, we have seen it to be true in human examples over and over. How many stories are there about spectacularly wealthy people who end up miserable and lost at the end of their life.
Again, it’s not the MONEY that causes this… it’s the ungodly love and lust for money.
v. 4: Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.
Because it was common in his time, James points out the field owner who cheated his workers. God hears the cries of persecution from all those who have been cheated out of income they truly deserved. Some thoughts on how this applies to us today:
- Are you generous in nature? When others work for you or serve you, are you instinctively generous, or do you consider it “just business” to pay them as little as you possibly can? It may not even involve cheating them out of pay but simply an attitude of being as stingy as possible to keep more money for yourself.
- When you enter into business deals or personal financial agreements is your primary attitude to manipulate the most advantageous arrangement FOR YOU and “let the other guy worry about themselves”? Is it just “tough luck” if you are smarter or more experienced and can get them to agree to something that is heavily in your favor? That doesn’t mean we can’t be smart, shrewd, frugal and conscientious about business… it means that our natural inclination is not an effort to see if we can really “put it to” the other guy financially. Do you think internally “what is a win/win, fair, God-honoring arrangement”? Or is it “how can I work this to MY greatest advantage regardless of what it does to them”? After all, business is business and if they are not smart enough to get a good deal, that’s their problem, right?
- Take those same thoughts above and apply it to any personal financial arrangements: personal loans, buying something from another person, someone providing a casual service to you. Do you seek your greatest advantage regardless of the other person? Are you generous and Godly in your financial dealings with other? Even if it’s something simple like paying someone to do basic chore? If they say “how about $5.00?” is your first thought “how about less?” or “how about I bless you with $10?”
- For the person whose god is money, they seek to keep as much for themselves as possible… it’s a mindset that does not consider the OTHER person
v. 5: You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.
If your god is money, then typically pleasure and luxury are a high priority too. The usual disclaimer here: God is not condemning our enjoyment of his material blessings… He is condemning those who compile wealth by taking advantage of others then living it up while those they walked over do without.
And Then You Flaunt It
Leaving no doubt what God’s opinion is, James uses the harshest of descriptions: slaughter, condemnation, murder (into verse 6 too). On a side note, it’s ironic today that our entitlement-minded, politically-correct, socialist politicians and activists use similar inflammatory rhetoric to condemn the free market and the honest, Godly accumulation of personal wealth. Once again, we see sinful man turning God’s principles upside down to do exactly what God is condemning: taking advantage of people.
In context, the “pleasure and luxury” James talks about is blatant, in your face, make fun of the poor flaunting of wealth. It’s adding insult to injury. I cheated you out your money, now I’m enjoying it too! It also implies that the lust of this wealth and lifestyle becomes a consuming sin. It feeds on itself and perpetuates the cycle. Most of us have seen these types of people many times. Money is everything. Prosperity is primary. Lifestyle is paramount and the thought and pursuit of it takes primary focus in life, including their Christianity. For a couple of decades now, we’ve had an entire segment of Christianity that seems singularly focused on prosperity, turning it into a Godly attribute that is evidence of a so-called “faith”.
The "day of slaughter" is not just alluding to the consequences of ending up miserable and empty in this life... it is a direct proclamation of divine judgment by God. Ending up miserable in this life will be a cake walk compared to the judgment God has waiting.
v. 6: You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.
We need to learn as Christians to rid ourselves of any tendency to think that “the rich” doesn’t apply to us. It does. We are VERY RICH by Biblical standards. Given that, we need to be on alerts for the sins, tendencies and attitudes that James so ardently warns us about. If you think you are immune to ever making money your god, I have this famous words of warning: pride goes before the fall.
Sometimes we dismiss passages like this as warnings to Donald Trump and Bill Gates. That’s a mistake. We are all susceptible to the trap James exposes.