James 5:1-6 is a kind of sub-point following his teaching about not living without God in our goal setting in chapter 4 and his admonition in 4:17 that we must act righteously. Today’s passage may be a charge against people in the early church who were doing these things: wealthy and proud of it, cheating laborers, their satisfaction coming from living in pleasure and luxury. Or it may be a warning against the desire or lust to do so.
In either case, it’s a warning to keep God and possessions in the right place in our thinking. I want to start with a biblical perspective on wealth and possessions
The biblical perspective on wealth and possessions
The Creator gave the first human pair a whole world to enjoy. It is obvious that possessions are not wrong in themselves. In fact, possessions have played a large part in both the accomplishment of God’s will and human being’s resistance to it. The biblical perspective about possessions, if we were to sum it up briefly, is that we should possess them, and they should not possess us.
Some measure of wealth is evident in the earliest days of the church. In the book of Acts, we can observe that Christians opened their homes for the church to meet. Acts 2 recounts how many Christians used their possessions and wealth to help their brothers and sisters who were not so well off. Numerous times we read in the epistles where Paul thanks Christians in the expanding church for their gifts to the poverty-stricken Christians in the Jerusalem church, as well as for their gifts for his support.
Obviously, merely possessing some wealth is not condemned in the Bible. Instead, numerous times people are commended for sharing and encouraged to generously help others who are not so fortunate.
Wealth and possessions also lead to some negative press in the pages in the Bible, too, because they can be the object of people’s selfishness. Think back to the very early days of the people of Israel, when they were camped at the base of the mountain on their 40-year trek to Palestine. Why do you think that tablet of laws Moses brought down the mountain included the 8th commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15)? Because people coveted their neighbors’ possessions and at least occasionally stole from them.
James, in chapter 4, deals with the desire for wealth, among other things, when it becomes a primary desire of life. In the opening verses of chapter 4, he uses words like “lust”, “covet,” and calls his readers’ conflicting desires for God and the world the “war” within them. Jesus dealt with that inner war a number of times. In Matthew 19, he teaches how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. He’s talking about the person who puts devotion to wealth before devotion to God.
And all of us remember the rich young ruler of Luke 17. We read that he had kept the letter of the law all his life. Yet when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, distribute the proceeds to the poor, and follow him . . . well, he lost the inner war and sorrowfully walked away, unwilling to give up his god of possessions for the real God.
Paul dealt with the issue in his first letter to Timothy this way: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
James brings three charges against the unjust rich:
1. World-based priorities (2-3)
They were insensitive to God-centered priorities and values. In those days wealth consisted primarily of land, food, garments, and money. The wealthy ate well, dressed well and spent lavishly.
James says, “Your wealth is corrupted (literally, your wealth has rotted), and your garments moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded.” In other words, their carefully accumulated wealth, in which they derive their own sense of significant, value, and satisfaction, is, in the final analysis, worthless. It will disappear. This is a follow-up to his words in chapter 4 about the need for God, and not personal gain, to be at the center of our life goals. But the tendency is for us to value material gain so highly that we may see no real need for God, to have faith in resources more than spiritual realities.
Jesus dealt with this attitude in Luke 12:16-21: “Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?” So he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
James is teaching that it is the world’s priority to have wealth as the goal of life. No matter how adept we are at it, it’s temporary. How much more wealthy the rich man in Jesus’ parable would have been had he stored up treasures in heaven.
In the latter part of verse 3, James writes, “You have heaped up treasure in the last days.” The term “Heaped up” means “hoarded up”; that is, amassed more than one will ever need. Wanting to accumulate more and more gets out of control. He’s not talking about wise money management or our retirement savings here, but about hoarding, accumulating as a never-achieved objective.
2. Injustice (4,6)
The day-laborer in Palestine was poor. He was hired by the day, paid at the end of the day, and constantly lived on the brink of starvation. Each day’s wages bought each day’s food. Moses gives us the low in regard to paying day laborers in Deuteronomy 24:15: “Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.” He also writes the words of God in Leviticus 19:13: “You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning.”
But it was common for wealthy farmers to withhold pay from day-laborers. The wealthy were politically connected. The courts openly favored them. The day-laborer had no social standing, no voice in the courts. We see in verse 6 that it was a tendency for the rich to use their influence and social standing to oppose the poor. The term “condemn” in verse 6 is a judicial term meaning “to pronounce guilty.” The poor, such as the cheated day-laborer, may have a just cause, but the courts were controlled by the affluent.
God strongly judges injustice on the part of the rich against the poor in verse 6. I think James may be referring to a principle in contemporary Jewish wisdom literature here: “To take away a neighbor’s living is to murder him; to deprive an employee of his wages it to shed blood” (Ecclesiasticus 34:22; 180-175 B.C.). And fraud, he reminds his readers in verse 4, does not go unnoticed by God: “the cries of the reapers (the defrauded day-laborers) has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.”
3. Indulgence (5)
Though surrounded by need, the kind of wealthy person James refers to is self-centered and self-serving, with the goal of extravagance and luxury. Somewhere I read a saying that rings true: “When luxury dominates life, it sabotages character.” That’s what James is telling us here, too. Character plus wealth has great potential for good, but self-centered, self-indulgent wealth is sin for the Christian.
To sum all this up, the Bible does not tell us to live in poverty or to give away everything we have. It doesn’t say the only good Christian is a poor Christian. It doesn’t say poverty is inherently good and wealth inherently evil. But it does teach us about attitude and focus. It shows us a clear choice: to live as though there is nothing more than what we see around us, in a self-centered, self-indulgent way, or to live in light of the spiritual truth that we have an eternal life, we have been given the gift of knowing our Lord and Savior, and we have the opportunity to reflect His eternal character in how we live.