Proper Treatment of the Poor in James

A central aspect of the ethical teaching in the book of James is proper treatment of the poor. James 1:27 commands the care of widows and orphans, in 5:15 he commands the elders to care for the sick in their churches. James warns his readers that the wealthy ought not treat the poor with contempt or insist on special privileges (2:1-9). In fact, James 5:1-6 is a stunning condemnation of the wealthy who store up treasure on earth and abuse those who work for them.

Begging in ChurchJames’ concern for the poor accords well with the situation in Judea just prior to the Jewish revolt, John Painter points put that in the years leading up to the revolt there were increasing tensions between the wealthy Aristocratic Priests and the poor priests and Levites who served in the Temple (Just James, 250). Since the aristocratic priests were likely Sadducean, few (if any) from this level of society joined the Jesus movement. The poor Pharisees, however, may have been attracted to Jesus as a messiah, teacher of the law, and had no problem with the idea of resurrection.

This concern also resonates with the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. Paul’s concern for the “poor saints in Jerusalem” is well known, from the earliest mention of Paul in Acts he is delivering a gift to Jerusalem because of a famine. In the letters of Paul there are several references to the collection from the Gentile churches to help support the Jerusalem church. There were some wealthy members of the Jerusalem church, such as Barnabas, who sold property to help the community survive. But the wealthy did not make up a large percentage of the Jerusalem church and potentially exhausted their wealth supporting the community.

This may mean that the church in Jerusalem was living in a kind of self-imposed poverty, perhaps because they were modeling their lives after Jesus. Just as Jesus had no home or possessions to speak of, the members of the Jerusalem church shared their possessions and lived in anticipation of the return of their Lord. If this is the case, they may have been despised by the aristocracy, who understood wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. This somewhat perverse misunderstanding of the Blessings of the Law would have led to the assumption that the ones living in poverty were under God’s curse.

The letter of James therefore gives us a bit of insight into the social conditions of the Jerusalem church in the middle of the first century. Just as care for the widow and poor is typical of the prophetic message of Hosea or Amos, James takes up the cause of these undefended members of the community.  Karen Jobes points out that James 5:1-6 is a “prophetic denouncement” of the rich, people who accumulate wealth by abusing the poor (Letters to the Church, 170).   She sees James’ attack on the rich as an attack on an “evil arrogance which is incompatible with spiritual maturity.”

To what extent is the danger about which James is concerned a problem in modern churches?  Is there favoritism in the church? Is there an “evil arrogance” which is evidence of our spiritual immaturity?  I think that perhaps there is….

Bibliography: John Painter, Just James. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999; Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2011.

11 thoughts on “Proper Treatment of the Poor in James

  1. Don’t you think it is interesting that in Hebrew there is no way to literally say, “I have?” For those who don’t know Hebrew, instead we say, “there is to me,” or, “there is not to me.” Does anyone think this has any significance? Perhaps this alludes to the idea that God owns everything and we are just given the opportunity to steward his resources, and perhaps both wealth and poverty are also a test to see how we will handle both?

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  2. There was a story circulating around the internet that a pastor named Jeremiah Steepek came into his new church dressed as a homeless man. The story goes that no one talked to him or helped while he was there, until he got into the pulpit to introduce himself. He then dismissed everyone to think about how they treat people both in and out of church. There has been some speculation as to whether this story is actually true, and yet the image remains nevertheless. Favoritism in the church is nothing new, and it is as big of a problem as ever. One of my good friends father’s (who happens to be very wealthy) went to a church and they immediately started to treat him with incredible respect and love… but it was not long before they requested a donation. As flawed people, we can forget that we cannot show favoritism in the church. We cannot stoop to the “what can you do for me mentality.” In fact, all throughout James we find the complete opposite of this mentality… It becomes all about what we can do for them. A lot of post modern thinkers and believers think that this whole social justice idea is new and radical. But what we find in the scripture is a whole new level of social justice. It sounds like many of these people where living in poverty so that they could care for and provide for others. They were living in commune in Acts 2, in which rich and poor, male and female, young and old were living together in complete submission and openness (with possessions and living). I am not arguing that we should all go out and be Shane Claiborne, and yet there is something inherently noble about this way of life that draws us to it. And yet there are so many things that would hold us back from such a lifestyle. James counters these selfish excuses and calls out the rich telling them that they need to stop being selfish with their money and give! “James’s point is that Christians with resources must live differently than ‘the rich’ by caring for the poor; otherwise they have not truly understood and believed the gospel” (*Jobes 229). I don’t believe that he expects them to sell everything, but to treat the poor well in giving and in treating them with Christ’s love. When i read this, i become convicted as i know that i am the same way when it comes to life in general. I see how i am biased towards certain people, and more willing to treat the wealthy, the intelligent, or the attractive better. And yet God doesn’t look at the outward appearance and we are called to social justice, in serving and loving everyone.

    *Jobes, Karen, Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles

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  3. We are certainly called to employ all of our assets; our possessions, gifts, time and talents in the service of God and man. But there is a misconception here that “social justice,” as it is preached today is the same as God’s justice.

    Social justice says things that God never said; that all people have the right to have equality in regard to income and possessions, whereas we are warned to not covet. Ancient Israel had a plan for dealing with the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners, and perhaps we think we can improve upon that? Perhaps the Holy One brings both the poor and the rich, the strong and the weak, the wise and the foolish (okay, I have had a really hard time with this one) into our lives as a test to see how we will respond?

    The hope and the promise is every man under his own vine and fig tree, with no one to make him afraid. And that is something no human hands or minds can bring forth.

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  4. I think that the danger that James is concerned about is very relevant to the Church today. As the Body of Christ, our job is to be examples of Christ not only to each other, but also to our communities, to those who aren’t part of the Body. I think that this is the vision that James had for the Church, but he saw that that’s not always how it was. Today, thats not always how it is.
    We Christians, myself included, tend to rush to negative conclusions when we see a poor person. We forget that our job isn’t to know people’s hearts, our job is to minister to them, no matter where they are. I also think that there is a certain sense of arrogance in the Church, but I do believe it varies, and I do think that this is a sign of our spiritual maturity, or immaturity.
    So yes, I think that James’ concerns are relevant in the Church today, and I think that his words on social justice are just as true as they were before.

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  5. I could not agree more that this is a major problem in the church today, their are way too many people out there who call themselves Christians and instead of showing love to those who who it because they are in the middle of a financial struggle which is running rampant throughout the country. They don’t even bat an eyelash, some even say that that person deserves their situation because they must have done something earlier in life. I have heard the phrase “Christians are the first to shoot their wounded”, this applies to any sort of struggle, especially money. Too many of us forget that Jesus himself was homeless and if he was roaming the streets today he would probably be considered a pathetic bum to most. Too many people believe that they are somehow upgraded when they accept Christ, as a matter of fact it is almost the opposite. They are making themselves a servant to God to help others, this is a problem that has always existed. It existed thousands of years ago, it exists now and will continue to exist in the future, the best thing we can do is to lead by example. Because I believe that a little good and have a much bigger impact on the world than a bunch of evil.

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  6. Today’s chapel speaker at Grace Bible College, Grand Rapids, MI 49509 (so people can clarify of which “Grace” college is being addressed) is a perfect example of how modern Christianity in America separates itself from those in need. The speaker a professional skateboarder and beat boxer talked about how his Christian hierarchy of leadership insisted he be a “clean cut and orthodox” in his ministry – and how he could never use skateboarding or beat boxing to glorify Jesus. He alluded to the fact that while he was in Christian college he had “more friends on the street who smoked pot than who were addicted to the Bible”. Ultimately, he graduated and started a Christian ministry that reaches out to the skate park crowd… a crowd that is often looked down upon and “rejected”, sadly, by… Christians.

    James is quite clear when he states that if one knows about a person’s needs, but does nothing about it, that individual’s faith is “dead” (James 2:17). If Christians “know” the need others have for salvation, but refuse to proclaim the message of salvation based on the “socioeconomic” status of people, how much “deader” can that Christian’s faith be? How these two classes of people are treated “displays allegiance either to the world’s ways or to God’s” (Jobes, 229).

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  7. I think the danger about James in modern churches, is that when looking at it, they interpret to modern day societies to better apply it to their lives, without keeping in mind James’ audience of the letter. I definitely think that there is favoritism in the church, they tend to pick at the verses of James that they agree with instead of looking at all of it as a whole. Also there is definitely an “evil arrogance” which is evident in our spiritual immaturity. We tend to think that what we think we know is right, when what we think we know is not always right. When it comes to our knowledge about the Bible, when we tend to take different things from it and form it to fit the lives we want to live, it puts a big damper on our spiritual lives, it also brings out the selfishness that is in all of us.

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  8. I have been reading a book titled In His Image by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. In it they discuss how the Body of Christ is like a human body. One particular chapter is about adaptation. When someone has a sore spot on their foot, the pain causes the body to naturally adjust when walking so that less pressure is being placed on that spot. Paul’s exhortation in his letter to the Galatians, “Carry each other’s burdens,” parallels the natural adaptation of the human body. Just how much and how often do we take on the pressure of those in the Body who are weak and need to rest?

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  9. When I first read the questions at the end of this post, I thought of a story similar to what Adam shared. I watched this sermon a while back by Francis Chan, the former pastor of Cornerstone Church in Southern California. He actually used this passage in James 2 as the basis for his talk. He had a hidden camera set up in the lobby showing him waiting outside the sanctuary after one of the services. He also had a kind of edgy looking teenager stand near him when people filed out from the service. The video shows that while many people came to talk to Francis, only one person stopped to talk to the teenager. He used this illustration to demonstrate that its easy for us to place people into categories of who we will and won’t associate with. This comes from our desire to get something from others when we interact with them – “this person will cheer me up” or “I don’t want to talk to that person because they will drain me.” When we become too dependent on other people for our source of validation, we fall into the trap of favoritism. But if all our worth is centered in Christ, we don’t have worry about being unfulfilled. This frees us up love people and give of ourselves for their benefit.

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