Meditations in James: 47 : Accountability for the Rich
Jas 5:1-3 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.
There are commentators who maintain that these verses cannot apply to Christians because of the harshness of them, but elsewhere in this ‘letter’ the references have been to those in the church, and one has to ask the question, if this was to unbelievers, when could they possibly have it read to them? For a third time in these recent meditations we will suggest that either James knows specific people or churches where there are people like this, or that he is giving a general warning – in this case to the rich – because he knows the general tendency or the characteristics that so often go with the situation. We will assume the latter, although it is also interesting to view these first six verses as a cry against the rich, when very few Christians were rich. It thus becomes a cry against those who oppress the Christians. However, we will consider it as a cry to include Christians.
Remember two main things that we have picked up in this letter. First, that James is speaking to those of the church who have been dispersed or spread out across the world and who are no longer under the close comfort, direction and protection of the original church at Jerusalem. Second, his fear, and therefore his warnings, is directed against the tendency of Christians to become assimilated into the world. Again, as we look at these verses, we must comment that although they obviously applied to Christians in the first century, they apply even more to us living in the West at the beginning of the twenty first century, which is a time of unparalleled affluence.
We also need to remember a general principle that comes out of the Bible. God is not against material prosperity, but is against reliance upon it that draws people away from Him. When we observe the wisdom that God gave Solomon, we see that much of that wisdom was used to make the country prosperous and him richer than anyone else in the world. In Solomon’s case it wasn’t the riches themselves that drew Solomon away, but the multitude of foreign wives he had. We also find many references in Scripture to God’s desire to prosper us, and it is clear that that includes materially as well as spiritually.
No, the big concern is what effect riches have upon us. Jesus taught, “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.” (Mt 6:24). If you make money your master, if it is the thing you focus your life upon, then you will find it impossible to maintain a healthy relationship with the Lord. When James now speaks like and Old Testament prophet, it is simply to create a picture that warns any Christian who might fall into the trap, living out in the world, of being seduced by money and possessions. Remember Jesus’ teaching that followed that reference above: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33) The ‘all these things” are material provisions. Possessions are not to rule us; we are to rule over them. Our focus is not to be possessions, but on doing God’s will. When we do that, then God provides the possessions.
With all that in mind, we are then ready to consider what James actually says here. Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Now this may be a general warning or it may be a prophetic insight that for them, at that time, there was coming a time of upheaval when riches would mean nothing. Especially for those who rely upon riches, such a time is a time of misery. When we push ourselves financially, and then go into times of recession, these are especially difficult times. The wise Christian never puts their life into a position where recession wipes away their assets or puts them in jeopardy.
See what more he says: Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. James envisages the effect of simply storing up material possessions and not using them. The builder of bigger barns in Jesus’ parable (Lk 12:16-21) couldn’t use his barns and his wealth because he died unexpectedly. The warning here is that if you just leave wealth to store up you won’t be able to use it because of the danger of it deteriorating. How many have stored away expensive pictures or furniture only to find them attacked by woodworm or mildew. Possessions, of whatever sort, are not for hoarding, but for using. What is even worse about this, is that there is a world in need that we could be helping with our surplus. It is right to make provision for family and the future but if it goes beyond reasonable provision, we have to be careful that we are not putting ourselves beyond God’s protection when it comes to all that affluence.
Finally he says, “Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” When all our plans to stock up, fail because the stock market fails or our possessions are stolen or they literally rot, our human plans of self-sufficiency are shown to be folly, and they testify against us. Moreover we feel really upset about what has happened. The phrase, they eat your flesh like fire is a graphic prophetic form of picture that shows the anguish we feel when this sort of thing happens. If you spilt petrol on you and it caught fire, the encroaching flames would eat at your flesh causing immense pain. When all your stored riches come to nothing, the anguish is the same if you have placed all your reliance upon them.
This is the warning James is bringing us, in his desire to draw us back from the ways of the world. Go down the same path they go down, is what he is implying, and you risk suffering the same anguish that they will suffer. The warning is against relying upon riches, against relying upon money and possessions. The warning is for drawing us back into a closer relationship with the Lord, where we make Him and His will our central focus, and money and possessions are merely icing on the cake. A salutary warning for many in the day in which we live!