At this point in the James’ letter, we have already heard about the relational tension between the rich and poor Christians within the church (2:6-7). However, in this section that we’ll look at this week, many commentators believe that James is not addressing the rich Christians directly, but is addressing the non-Christian rich of his day. This is in the prophetic rhetorical tradition, which pronounced judgment on pagan nations with the hope that God’s people would “overhear" the words and receive warning to not mimic the nations around them. James has a similar agenda as he seeks to show his Christian readers the vanity of wealth so they would not envy them and fall away. In the words of John Calvin, “James has a regard to the faithful, that they, hearing the miserable end of the rich, might not envy their fortune.”
Some of the terrible dangers of wealth that James outlines include: Presumption (4:13-16): Wealth and security give us the illusion that we are in control of our lives and can actually determine the outcomes of our futures. In reality, our lives are mist. James warns not against all planning for the future but planning that does not acknowledge God’s sovereign overruling of our lives. Hoarding (5:1-6). Accumulation and the amassing of money and possessions, while commended in our society, is ungodly and wasteful, and will be exposed as foolishness in the day of judgment The purpose of wealth is the love and service of others, not the service of self. Injustice (5:4). Wealth often blinds us from the needs of the most vulnerable, and can even lead us into harmful actions against others for personal gain. No act of exploitation against the poor and vulnerable goes unnoticed by the Lord. Sometimes it appears that no one cares, but God sees and promises to act. While not actually murdering someone, it is possible that our lifestyle as wealthy ones in the West can lead to the harm or even death of others.
In summary, James is not saying wealth is bad, but that wealth is dangerous. For those of us in the West who are wealthy, we do well to take James’ warning seriously and consider ways we might steward our wealth in ways that honor God’s reign over our lives and the world. In preparation for worship, prayerfully work through this passage and ask God to show you ways that you may have succumbed to the dangers of wealth.
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
Warning to Rich Oppressors
5 Now 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. 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.