In this small section of the letter of James, the writer takes time to denounce the exploiting activities of the rich. He is not denouncing wealth as such, rather he is attacking wealth obtained by corruption. He attacks ill-gotten gains and the motivations that drive us to these ends. So, the passage again exposes unrighteous behavior, behavior which is the product of a "useless" faith.
v1. James directs his words to the rich, not to the wealthy as such, but to the unrighteous who, through their exploitation of the poor, have grown fat on the suffering of others. James tells them that they might as well start lamenting now because what goes around, comes around.
v2-3, James has a word of judgment for the unrighteous rich, a judgment that is even now beginning to bite. For a first century man the symbols of wealth were fine clothing and a bulging purse. Yet, wealth is transitory, it dissipates before our very eyes. Even worse, wealth stolen from the poor will condemn the rich in the coming day of judgment. Why hoard wealth for the a coming day when it will only serve as evidence for the prosecution?
v.4. In the following verses James details the charges against the arrogant rich, First, not only have they failed to show compassion toward the poor, they have actually exploited them. The evil rich have used the sweat of the poor to gain wealth for themselves. They have not paid just wages. The law of God demands a just recompense for a worker's expended effort. To do otherwise is to cause a hurt which, in the end, reaches the ear of God. The Scriptures are clear on this issue and thus the wealthy have no excuse. "He murders his neighbor who deprives him of his living, and he who defrauds a hireling of his wages is a shedder of blood", Lev.12:13, Deut.24:15, Jer.22:13, Mal.3:5.
v5-6. The rich have set themselves up in extravagant luxury while other have nothing. And worse still, it is a luxury gained by the exploitation and suffering of others. Again, such behavior is stupid, because all they are doing is reinforcing their condemnation on the day of judgment.
The first decade of the 21st. centaury will go down in history for spawning the fruits of a greed is good philosophy. The Global Financial Crisis, generated by corrupt merchant bankers, most of whom still ply their trade, virtually brought the world's banking system to its knees. Then, as a consequence, Western governments, weakened by unsustainable debt, and now further weakened by taking over the debts of their banks, were paralyzed in the face of a world-wide recession. And all this, down to greed.
Only in the kingdom of heaven will greed no longer drive us. None-the-less, our passage for study has something to say to us for the here and now:
1. The stupidity of hoarding, v1-3. The things of this world are subject to decay, so it is best to wisely use what we have before we have nothing to use. cf. Matt.25:25-30, Luke.19:20-27.
2. The sin of legal theft, v4. It is not a nice situation to find people who proclaim their religion, but who don't even pay their staff a fair recompense. They do not fulfill their honest obligations because they want to get more of this worlds things. Such behavior does not go unnoticed by the Judge of the universe.
3. The trap of pleasure, v5. As Richard Holloway puts it, "The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is always ultimately unsatisfying ... and becomes addictive." The reason for this is that if we "pursue pleasure we fail to get it", and this because you cannot "separate pleasure from the act that gives it." The person who exploits does so for self-pleasing. Such is selfish greed and, in the end, is not satisfying.
4. Exploitation is as good as murder, v6. To manipulate the structures of a society from a position of power, eg. the legal system, so as to deprive the poor of the little they have to add to the excess of the rich, is as good as murder. In God's eyes, it is that serious.
It is not easy for a believer to function untainted from the materialism of this world. If we do find ourselves in the greed-trap, willing to exploit for self-pleasing, then we need to humble ourselves before the Lord. "Come near to God and he will come near to you" and "he will lift you up."
1. What does James mean by, "you have hoarded wealth in the last days"?
2. Is James critical of wealth as such?
3. What is it that James is criticizing in this passage?
4. If James is warning exploiters, for what purpose does he warn them?