Meditations in James: 48 : Unjust Employment
Jas 5:4 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.
One of the things we have sought to draw out again and again in these meditations is the truth that spirituality, if it is real, will have practical outworkings. In other words, faith is expressed in a godly and righteous lifestyle, and more often than not this is about how we respond to or deal with other people. Now rich people get rich because they have the ability to get poorer people to work for little (by comparison) and to get other people to pay larger sums of money so that profit is made. That is a simple economic assessment. Profit is made because the entrepreneur sells his products for more than it costs him to make them. None of us would argue with this, because without a profit no producer is going to make the goods we use in modern life. God isn’t against modern goods, but if their manufacture involves keeping the poor, poor then He has, we believe, an issue with those manufacturers who exploit the poor.
God’s intentions in these issues are clear in that they are revealed in the Law that He gave Moses. We find, “Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.” (Lev 19:13). In other words, when you hire a man on a daily basis to work for you, don’t delay paying him at the end of the day. Such a man hiring himself out for daily work is not likely to be well off and so he needs the money straight away to buy provisions for his family. To withhold his money is to deprive his family unfairly. Similarly, “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deut 24:14,15).
There the Law was quite specific. Whether it was an Israelite or a foreigner, ensure you pay the man working for you promptly. Failure to do that is sin, and you have an issue with the Lord. Perhaps a modern equivalent to this is modern large companies holding back money owed to smaller companies or individuals, a fairly regular and unrighteous practice. Not only did the Law speak against this sort of thing, but the prophets also denounced it: “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.” (Jer 22:13) and “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Mal 3:5). The practice of holding back wages that have been earned is clearly injustice and is unacceptable in God’s sight.
Now James picks on this subject because, as we’ve said several times previously, he either has heard about this injustice, or he knows that this is how the rich employer so often works, so that he denounces it and is saying by implication that this must not happen when Christians are involved. The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you is a prophetic way of saying simply that this injustice is crying out to be deal with. There he says it is the wages that are still in the coffers of the rich that should have been paid out to the poor worker that is crying out to God. But then he goes further: The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. Those who are being exploited cry out in their anguish and frustration, and God hears their cries. When there is injustice, it is like that thing cries out to God and draws God’s attention to it. It needs dealing with.
God is concerned for the poor. God is concerned for justice and it is no excuse to say, “Well, everyone does it.” That is no excuse; it is still wrong! If the employer is a Christian that is doubly bad for they should know better. How can you say you love your neighbour (Lev 19:18, Mt 22:39) is you are exploiting him. If you are a Christian and you are involved in these practices in any way, you are involved in something that the Lord speaks strongly against.
We conclude as we started, with a reminder that spirituality always has practical outworkings if it is really spiritual, because God is concerned about the very way we live. We may appear very spiritual, reading the Bible, praying publicly, and worshipping on a Sunday, but if the weekday life involves doing something that the Lord is against, all that apparent spirituality is meaningless. Check out your working days!