Woes to the Wealthy | James 5:1-6

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Turn with me to James chapter 5, the last chapter of the book of James. And I would encourage you have a Bible open, because we’re going to learn a little bit about how to study the Bible today. As you’re turning to James 5, I do want to mention that we are starting up a new Raintree 101 class next Sunday morning, 9:15. It’s four weeks, me and a few of the elders lead it, and it’s the perfect way to learn more about Raintree, what we’re about, where we’re headed in the future, and things like that.

101 has become one of my favorite things to be part of at Raintree, because it’s good not only for you to get to know the church better, but also for myself and few of the elders to get to know you a little bit! So, if you’re a guest, we’d love to have you. We have children’s and youth activities at that same time. Again, 9:15 next Sunday morning. James 5:1-6, the harshest words we find in all the book of James. This is what he writes:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

So a few weeks ago we looked at how James is addressing our need to be humble before God. Chapter 4 verse 6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Then Chapter 4 verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” He deals very strongly with this lack of humility before God because that is the heart of what it means to be a Christian, that we have submitted ourselves to God! We’ve turned from being our own Kings, and trusting in ourselves, and have placed our faith in Christ, our Substitute and true King.

And so what James has done over the last several weeks that we’ve been in James is deal with a few specific areas that this pride in ourselves can so easily rear its ugly head. The first area James wrote about was gossip, and how we talk about each other. Ultimately, talking bad about others is placing ourselves above them, in judgment of them. The second area James wrote about was making plans like we’re in full control, like we’re self-sovereign, like our will and desire and abilities are the only factors determining whether or not something happens. Again, this reveals pride, and this tendency we have in still thinking of ourselves as kings, as rulers.

The third and last area that James writes about, as far as pride, is with wealth and self-indulgence. And as I mentioned already, James is casting a harsher rebuke than ever before. He is not messing around. And to me, this is just yet another reminder that sometimes mere positivity doesn’t cut it in the Christian faith! Sometimes rebuke, correction, frankly—denunciation, is needed in the Christian faith. And that’s what James does here for us.

 

Authorial Intent/Original Audience

Now before we get to our outline, there is something that’s a bit of a difficulty with this text that we just read, and that is the question of WHO, exactly, James is writing this to. Who is James’ intended audience? Is it the same audience as we’ve had the whole book so far, which was Jewish Christians? Or, with how strong his language is, and how seemingly hopeless what he says is, is he talking to non-Christians, those who have no hope without Christ?

This is actually one of the most important questions we can ask when trying to understand what the Bible is actually saying. Before we can understand what the Bible means for US, today, we must FIRST understand what the Bible meant for them, the original audience! You see, it’s very easy to not really have in mind what the author originally intended when he wrote. Because these are God’s words written to us, right? So it’s easy to just bypass the importance of what it meant originally, and go straight to whatever we think it means for us.

The problem with that is that by doing that we can make the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean. Every cult that exists does this in one way or another. When trying to understand what the Bible is communicating, we must get to what the author originally intended for the original audience, and from there we can see and understand rightly how it applies to us today. In fact, THAT is where the power of the Word of God is found. In what God meant by it and therefore still means by it today. Obviously, application of Scripture can change from person to person and from context to context, but the meaning of the text doesn’t change. God has spoken, and we can’t twist what he has said. Which is exactly why it’s important to ask, who is James writing to in this text, because it can better help us understand what James is saying. This question may seem boring, but it matters!

 

The Difficulty of the Original Audience of James 5:1-6

Camp One: non-Christian audience

The main camp of commentators and scholars are those who believe James is writing to non-Christians here. Even though the rest of this book is written for Christians, most seem to think that this section was intended for non-Christians. The main reason is because James gives no hope of deliverance for these people he’s condemning. Did you notice that? Verse 1: “Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” Wow. You might think that, well, doesn’t that imply like a call to repentance, like James is saying, “Be broken, weep and owl and repent!” That’s possible, but that’s not what James explicitly writes.

In fact, James is really tapping into Old Testament prophetic language here: “weep and howl” were words often used to describe the response of the wicked when God’s judgment had come! “Weep and howl; judgment has come!” And this seeming hopelessness continues—verse 3: “Your gold and your silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.” That is an incredibly strong image of God’s judgment. Another image of God’s judgment is in verse 5: “You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”

So, it does seem like James very well could be talking to non-Christians. Why would he do that right in the middle of a book written to Christians? Well, this is another thing that Old Testament prophets would do, is pronounce judgment upon pagan nations, even if they weren’t present (even if the prophet wasn’t speaking to those pagan nations directly, but to the Israelites), he’d do this to bring comfort to his people. To basically say to God’s people that, “Hey! The day of judgment is coming. All of this oppression you’re experiencing will not last forever!” Kind-of putting Christians in the place of those being oppressed.

If this is what James is getting at, then verse 6, when he says, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person,” that righteous person is the believer, the Christian. And then even verse 7 would kind-of fit this meaning: it says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.”

In other words, again, “Be patient, God will bring judgment. These wealthy landowners, who were increasingly becoming a smaller and smaller group of people in 1st-century Palestine, these wealthy landowners who are oppressing Christians and defrauding them, will have their day of judgment. Misery is coming. Their riches will rot and even bear witness against them in judgment, and ultimately are only fattening them up for the day of slaughter.” So, that’s how most commentators and scholars seem to understand this passage.

 

Camp Two: Christian Audience

Now, there are also some reasons to believe that James might still have in mind Christians when he’s writing this. It fits within James’ letter to speak very strongly against Christians not living like Christians. If you remember back to James chapter 2: “Faith without works is dead.” Chapter 2 verse 20: “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless.” So, it does seem to fit his attitude in the rest of the letter. And, there’s some parallel language—chapter 4 verse 13: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we do this and that and make a profit.’” He’s talking to Christians there; it would seem to make sense to also be talking to Christians in verse 1 of chapter 5, which says, “Come now, you rich.’”

And then there’s the point that maybe “weep and wail” is a call to repentance. There’s no guarantee that it’s not. So, usually when there’s disagreement about a particular text’s exact meaning or audience, usually when I get into studying it, I land somewhere. Usually, I think the text is pretty clear with these things, even in debated passages. BUT, this time, I’m just not totally sure, so I’m going to cheat a little bit. I’m going to step back, and pull truths and applications from both sides.

Even if this is written to non-Christians, we, as Christians, can certainly learn a thing or two about the dangers of wealth. And, of course, if it’s written to Christians, then obviously, we should take this as a blatant warning against loving wealth and self-indulgence. So, finally, on to our outline:

 

4 Truths of Wealth and Self-Indulgence

  1. Hoarding wealth contradicts stuff’s temporary nature (2-3).

Verses 2-3: “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.” Hoarding and being obsessed with building our wealth and possessions makes NO sense in light of eternity. Why? Because these things just don’t last! They’re temporary! This is an even MORE gripping truth because we’re in the last days. In a time when Jesus could come back at any moment, wealth for the sake of wealth is worthless.

There’s a very strong parallel here with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19-21- “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.”

That’s the true warning here. Hoarding wealth for the sake of hoarding wealth, and not to use it for God’s glory, reveals that our hearts may belong to something other than God, and it reveals that maybe we don’t truly recognize the temporary nature of earthly riches. Our hearts, our desires, our ambitions, can so easily be corrupted by the temporary but seemingly very tangible nature of stuff. This is why Scripture gives us such strong warning that wealth and luxury can so easily become an obstacle to our love for Christ, our real treasure.

If we treasure stuff more than we treasure Christ, then we do not truly know Christ as He is. We don’t recognize his infinite value and worth, which is why verse 3 says that these earthly treasures will be evidence against us! They’ll reveal what has truly captivated our hearts, and therefore, in a sense, will be the very things that “eat our flesh like fire” in the judgment. That’s also in verse 3. So, first mic-drop truth: hoarding wealth contradicts stuff’s temporary nature. Second mic-drop truth:

 

  1. Cheating people is setting yourself in opposition to the Lord of Hosts (4).

Verse 4: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” So what’s happened here is that these landowners had cheated their own workers and employees to do what? To support their own excessive lifestyle. What’s the problem with that? Well, first, the problem is that God knows! God isn’t unaware when we cheat others out of money or wages. He knows. And not only does he know when we cheat people, but cheating people is setting ourselves in opposition to God. We set ourselves up against God.

When James writes that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts, why didn’t he just say Lord, or God? He says, “Lord of Hosts.” Why? Because James, yet again, wants to paint a clearer picture for us. The “Lord of Hosts” means the Lord of heaven’s armies. God is pictured here as a warrior going to battle for the poor and the oppressed, the righteous who are condemned and murdered by the actions of these landowners.

Douglas Moo points out, “The hoarding of wealth is wrong not just because it demonstrates utterly false priorities; it is doubly sinful because it also deprives others of their very life.” People have needs all around us. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a savings account, or a retirement plan. By no means is that what James is condemning here. He’s condemning an overly luxurious lifestyle, using our money primarily and even only to please ourselves and give us what we want, instead of using it in the great ways that it can be used.

Never in the Bible is wealth itself condemned. It’s not bad to be wealthy; it’s not bad to be rich. Sometimes it’s easy to make rich people out to be the villains just because they’re rich. But there’s nothing wrong with being rich. In many ways, every single person in this room is rich, especially when compared to the rest of the world. The problem is when these riches have so captivated our hearts that our priorities have become luxury, comfort, self-indulgence.

Particularly when it comes to somehow cheating others out of their money, God very clearly states his identity here as the Lord of hosts, which is a sobering reality if there ever was one. It’s also an incredibly comforting reality, for those of you who have been cheated, knowing that God will make things right! And he has the ability to do so, because he is the Lord of Hosts. The third mic-drop Truth of wealth and self-indulgence:

 

  1. Luxury and self-indulgence prepares us for slaughter (5).

This is the most shocking statement of them all. Verse 5: “You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in the day of slaughter.” You’ve lived not denying yourself anything your heart desired; that’s what self-indulgent means. James is saying it’s as if you’re a cow in a field eating grass, getting fatter and fatter, not even realizing that it is that very indulgence that makes you a prime candidate for slaughter! Skinny cows don’t a lot of meat!

Motyer puts it like this: “They are like so many unthinking beasts, luxuriating in their rich pasture day after day, growing fat by the hour and careless of the fact that each day, each hour, brings the butcher and the abattoir nearer. Only the thin beast is safe in that day; the well-fed has made itself ready for the knife. In such a way James saw the wealthy, blind alike to heaven and hell, living for this life, forgetting the day of slaughter.”

Is that us? We’re so captivated by the things of the world, in particular, wealth? Possessions? Cars? Retirement? House? Comfort? None of these things are bad things, in and of themselves! What James is warning against is not that we shouldn’t plan or have retirement money or have a house. He’s saying it is the love of these things, and the incessant desire to increase in these things, that prepares us for judgment.

Even if maybe we’re not necessarily accumulating much wealth or stuff at this point, the question is: is that our desire? Are we like the clueless skinny cow that really wishes he could eat and get fat? That could get whatever his heart desired? Is that not just as sobering of a thought? The skinny cow should be a happy and content cow! A thankful cow! Why? Because he’s not a prime candidate for the slaughter. He’s not facing the incredible dangers and temptation that face those who are rich. Such a vivid, but effective image that James gives us here. The 4th and final mic-drop truth of wealth and self-indulgence. This one is really more implied or at least parallel to verse 6, than it is explicitly from verse 6. #4, a sobering reminder:

 

  1. Judas betrayed Jesus, the Righteous One, for money (6).

This is just a self-explanatory warning for us, hopefully a terrifying reminder of how easy it is to be drawn away by the desire for money and stuff. Now, verse 6 doesn’t explicitly bring up Judas or Jesus. It says, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” To understand this verse, we kind-of have to go back to the question of who James is writing to in these verses. If he’s talking to non-Christians, then he’s saying, “you’ve condemned and murdered Christians, children of God!” Or it could just be more general: James just using the word “righteous” to mean innocent. Either way the point is the same: this isn’t good, to put it mildly. He doesn’t even follow up this indictment with an explicit penalty for what they’ve done: “You’ve murdered the righteous. That speaks for itself, the horrendous nature of your sin.

But when I read this verse, I also just can’t help but have my mind move to Christ. Jesus was and is the Righteous One, the supreme Righteous One. And he did not resist, did he? He did not resist arrest. He did not resist being tortured, flogged, beaten. He did not resist being hung on a Cross. This supreme person, God in the flesh, our King and Savior and Lord, Judas betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. Can I tell you the rough equivalent of 30 pieces of silver for today? $600.

Why is money so appealing to us? It’s not just that all of us want more and more and more stuff, though many of us do. I don’t think that’s the heart of it. Not all of us would want a mansion, or five mansions, or five sports cars. But what we all DO want is the freedom and power to choose to get whatever it is that we do want. For some of us, it may be a bigger, better house. For many of us, it may be just that money would allow us to be lazy and do nothing except be entertained to death. It goes back to our desire to be King, Supreme Ruler of our own lives. It goes back to the heart of sin, which is the desire to take the place of God. We think it will bring us more contentment, or at least less stress, but we are deceived.

To close, I’d like to propose a perspective change for all of us who are so easily captivated by earthly riches: Instead of seeing all the ways in which you are limited by finances as such big bad terrible things. See them as reminders from God that you do not depend upon money alone for your life and sustenance! AND even see them as God’s PROVISION for helping you not be deceived into thinking that you’re your own King, that you’re in full control. In fact, honestly, see every trial or thing that doesn’t go your way as provision from God to help you do the most important thing you can possibly do, which is recognize Him alone as King, and ourselves as utterly dependent upon Him.

See financial struggle, or just not getting what we want financially as grace from God, to help you not be distracted from the infinite value of Jesus Christ, our true treasure. And when you do get more money, watch yourself. James and Jesus and so many other biblical authors speak so strongly of the dangers of wealth for a reason. Never let temporary things marginalize eternal things. Let’s pray.