James’ message to such rich people is that their riches testify to the very deeds by which they were wrongly acquired. They have acquired wealth by corrupt deeds; now itself subject to corruption; and it will be the agent of the destruction of their bodies at the final judgment.
Come now, you rich, weep and howl…
Not even Bosch’s ghoulish painting of The Death of the Miser surpasses James’ graphic warning to the rich. At least Bosch signals that the miser has one last chance to repent, if only he heeds the advice of his guardian angel and looks to the crucifix hanging in the small window, rather than continuing to accumulate demonic wealth (offered by the demon on his right). James’ message is closer to that of Jesus in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31): a life of luxury at the expense of the poor will not go unpunished. Nevertheless, it is surely repentance that James seeks to provoke, hence his summons to “come now” and listen.
In the same way that James wasn’t referring to all merchants or all planning in 4.13-17, or ruling out every form of anger in 1.19, so too he does not condemn every rich person here. There are good rich people in the NT, but “you rich” here signifies those whose riches are gained by abusive, oppressive or exploitative means. As McKnight puts it, “it is ‘code’ for the oppressors of the messianic community” (see 2.6).
James’ message to such rich people is that their riches are already decaying and testify to the very deeds by which they were wrongly acquired. They have acquired wealth by corrupt deeds; that wealth is now itself subject to corruption; and it will be the agent of the destruction of their bodies at the final judgment.
Their mistreatment of their labourers violates two specific laws. Lev 19.13 stipulates “You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning.” The rich have managed to combine fraud and withholding wages in one evil action. Deut 24.15 repeats the injunction against withholding labourers’ wages overnight, “because they are poor and their livelihood depends upon them; otherwise they might cry out to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.” James equates such actions with murder (v.6; cf. Psalm 10).
The unavoidability of their punishment is underscored by allusions to two well-known OT passages: Gen 4.10, in which God tells Cain, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground”; and Exod 2.23-25, which records that the Israelites cried out to God in Egypt and, “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning… – and God knew.” God always hears.
That they have done such evil in the last days (v.3), when the Lord’s return as Judge is imminent, only compounds their folly. It will be a day of slaughter in which the rich will fill the role of the fatted calf, on which the righteous poor will presumably feast. How the tables will have turned! (cf. Luke 16.25)
Who are “the rich” in our context?
Loving God, I praise you that you are the defender of the poor and weak. Keep me, I pray, from self-indulgence and from blindness to the needy in this world. Give me a generous and selfless heart, that I may show the love of Jesus to all to whom you direct me, for in his name I pray. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash