The Rich and the Poor in James

Rich and PoorA 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.

James’ 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.

Jan and PaulThis 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.

29 thoughts on “The Rich and the Poor in James

  1. These are important concepts. Thinking and caring Christians for at least a century and a half have sought to apply them properly to our democratic republic (“secular state”, or with “separation of church and state”). The differences from ancient Israel are significant, in which “church” (or religious practice and leadership) and state were intermingled. Of course, Rome’s occupation complicated things further.

    As to present applications in America, of course ideas differ, and I can (generally) respect my more “limited government” friends who want only the churches (or “private sphere”) to care for the needy. Trouble is they can’t, at least very fully or effectively on a broad scale…. Inadequate organization or ability to even find all who are in need, even IF they had enough to help all who legitimately need it. In a country of loosely united states needing much coordination federally, smaller “units” of civil gov’t, such as state, county and local can’t or won’t do it effectively either, though I applaud and support their efforts.

    So until I see large numbers of churches, nationwide, coordinating effectively with smaller regional governments to adequately cover citizen needs, I will have to stick with supporting the far-from-ideal system of federally administered programs. To me, it goes seriously against the principles here in James for ultra-conservatives (many of them Christians) to oppose federal programs overall rather than trying to improve them while “allowing for” them unless and until churches CAN and DO do what I’ve suggested (or something that works!). Otherwise, it’s just like James’ noting that people say “… ‘keep warm and well fed’…but [do] nothing about his physical needs…” In Jesus’ terms, are not the needy who may be effectively beyond the reach of church or private charity our “neighbors”? And to be cared for through any structure we may create or have available that “works”? Even if it is contributed to and run by a combination of Christians and others and is far from perfect?

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  2. I think the two biggest problems that he is referring to, is about how the rich and poor view things when it comes to the idea of why people attend the church. The rich person goes to show they are a good person and the poor goes to get help from God and others generally. The rich should be giving to the poor and helping those in need, while the poor should be doing all they can to help each other and work hard for those who can. The rich and the poor should both be helping other not just the rich helping the poor or the poor working hard for the rich. Because the poor should not be going to become rich and the rich should not be going to feel superior to others.
    The problem comes in where the rich believe the poor are not doing their part or the poor believing the rich are holding back the resources. Because of this stigma it causes conflict and nothing gets done. This is why James speaks of the more spiritual aspect of preforming and doing good works. He wants people to know that the works that they do are out workings of being in the holy spirit. He doesn’t want the poor or the rich to concern themselves with what the others are doing. The rich should also learn how to offer help correctly to the poor as well, they are not looking for handouts most of the time they are looking or much rather have a secure job or line of work.
    That should not influence their giving or there working with each other. For the church itself should take up the responsibility of check on the what the people are doing with what they have been giving. Because we are called to hold each other accountable for our deeds and actions. Therefore there must be someone holding us to that accountability. When reading James it really helps me to think if I read 1 Timothy chapter 5-6:2. It speaks greatly on what the church should do. It doesn’t say the rebuke but to encourage them to do the right thing. It speaks of doing good to and for others so they look good and not so you do. So that they can be a light to the world in your stead and that they my bring wellness to others. I think of it this way, making others look good is what you are being called to do, help them do what is right and good in the eyes of God.
    Churches do not want to admit this but they do need the wealthy people in order to have what they think they need now a days. So there is favoritism towards the rich, but it should not whole be that way, they should hold to doing what is going for everyone.
    The only evil in the spirit I see is that churches are taking their reliance on themselves way too seriously now a days. God has become a smaller and smaller part of where things with in the church are coming from. It is becoming about the people wholly and about what they want and what they tell us they need. If people knew what they needed they wouldn’t need God. We are losing our dependence on God for what we sadly decided was reality.

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  3. I would argue that the Church today is at much more of a risk of dealing with the poor out of obligation and self-righteousness. I feel that today people believe it is their duty to cares for others and are philanthropic because it makes them look good to others; our service towards others is performance based. Our current culture is particularly performance based and individualist. It makes people feel good to know that they are “helping others”, who otherwise couldn’t “help” themselves. We help people because they appear to be lower than us and need saving they they couldn’t otherwise provide themselves with. In Matthew 23:5 Jesus condemns the Pharisees for flaunting their piously and the good they do. I would also argue that Megachurches and Televangelism only fuels the favoritism present in some churches, in order to afford such grand buildings and ornate details the churches have to keep the people that will pay for those things. Not to say that all Megachurches or Televangelists are just in it for the money, many certainly have made positive affects on peoples’ lives. Even look at modern mission; short-term missions are filled with pictures of white people holding “underprivileged” children living in destitute. We make the shot of us holding an orphan or the picture of us playing soccer with kids in Africa our banner on our Facebook profile. And certainly not all short-term mission trips are like this either. I’m simply trying to make a discussion and bring up things we make not often take about. I guess what i”m trying to get at, is in what heart are we doing service in? Are you doing it for the glory of God or for the glory of ourselves, the glory of man.

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  4. I think the real issue behind the “rich” and the “poor” is the heart and attitude behind the individual in either case. Jobes states that, “most people have a very shortsighted view of the future that might extend to living now in a way that will afford a comfortable retirement, but the biblical writers want us to see that how we live now is related to our afterlife and to choose to live accordingly.” I agree with this view in today’s culture. We have lost sight of the race we are running for the Lord on this earth, and then we become more self-focused and obtain an earthly mindset. I think James condemns those who are have a “rich” earthly mindset instead of a “poor” one like Jobes discusses. It is not about how much money you have, or what possessions you own, but how you use those things for the Lord. James 5:3 talks about how gold and silver (earthly things) that you hold onto will corrode and then testify against you.

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  5. The people of the Old Testament were told, “The poor will never cease to be in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). They were told to open their hands freely to the needy and the poor. James speaks of proper treatment for the poor in his letter: They are not to be judged or discriminated against (James 2:4).
    James speaks out for the poor who have not received proper wages, who have gone hungry, who have sat quietly under their oppression (5:1-6). In today’s world, it’s difficult see the poor as “not opposing” the rich. We hear of so many people collecting unemployment or disability wages when it seems apparent that they could work to earn a living. And it doesn’t appear that these people sit quietly; they seem to oppose standards and laws, demanding that more be given to them.
    James, however, doesn’t speak to the poor, but to the rich. Those of us with material resources, many or few, must humble ourselves and accept God’s sovereignty as the only sustaining power in our lives. This is very much an issue in the modern church. As Jobes reminds us, “The enticement of wealth is is still a great danger to Christians today.”

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  6. I think that there is certainly some favoritism and discrimination amongst the American churches, and I think that the environment of the modern American church is an exquisite example of what happens when individuals try to keep their private capitalistic lives separated from their private spiritual lives. Americans live in the wealthiest nation that in the whole scope of human history. The amount that we use and the amount we waste is staggering when compared to the people living in poverty, either in the past or the present. With this wealth we believe ourselves secure, we constantly talk about what we are going to do tomorrow with no regard to the Lord’s will on our lives. We arrogantly believe that it is our own intelligence, our own networking, our own strength that has enabled us to achieve and possess that which we claim is ours. When compared to the churches of Africa, South America, or Asia the security that we feel is staggering, and detrimental. Detrimental because it allows us to delude ourselves and separate God from our finances, and it is our finances which bring us security from the harshness of this world. Even though we all know that it is God that is supposed to provide us our security we hoard and take pride in the security that our wealth has provided us. I do, however, want to make a point of divergence here and talk about what James means in regards to the rich and the poor. Jobes sheds some excellent light on the subject by making the distinctions between possessing wealth and how a person acquires that wealth (Jobes 228). It is this distinction that we need to focus on, for if we do not we turn our focus on if it is evil to have wealth, which is not the point that I believe James is trying to make. It is the attitude of the “rich”, or those who are friends of the world and oppresses the poor and plan on making more money without consulting God beforehand (James 5:1-6; 4:13-17). Americans need to be careful not to slide into that attitude, which is all too easy in the American capitalistic culture, and instead embrace one another as sisters and brothers in Christ and be humbled that God has given us an abundance of wealth to use in the helping of others.

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  7. I think that there is definitely an issue still in the modern church with not caring/giving to the poor. The fact that we are more concerned with the size of our sanctuary than we are with helping the needy is evidence in and of this in itself. It is a big danger if we start focusing on the wrong things in our churches. The church should be an example of what it teaches. By spending our money on things that, may in fact be useful, but not necessary, when we could be shaping lives of those who need the money more than we need comfy seats in our sanctuary. In a few of my different classes an example has been given of a homeless person or of someone dressed inappropriately coming into church and not being accepted and greeted by people or even being told to sit in the very back or to leave in general because of the position of life they are in. This doesn’t show the love of Christ to them at all and may even turn them away from religion/Jesus because of our foolishness.

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  8. I feel like this is a discussion that should be discussed and brought into light in all the churches. I know for sometime at my church back home there was some favoritism and no one would bring it to light. Instead, let it thrive in the vines of gossip chocking the church. I think that the danger James is concerned with is still prevalent in churches; some churches may be blind sighted more towards it than other churches.There is favoritism whether you choose to deny it and let it thrive or accept it and help crush it. Most churches I noticed have cliques. There are the ones who get burned out from volunteering so much, those who do not volunteer much, those who work at the church and so on. There tends to be favoritism from those who work there and volunteer exceedingly. They tend to be seen as more holy while the others almost like peasants. The ones who tend to be favored tend to look down on those who do not do much. They tend to feel that they are doing all the work while those who do not volunteer as much are not really doing much at all. On the other hand those who do not do much tend to glare at those who volunteer exceedingly because they tend to feel like they may not being doing much when they do something or that they cannot do much because things are done by the few working or that they those who do everything look down upon them because they do not do as much. Those who do a lot of work in the church tend to view themselves higher because they serve more when really those who do not serve much maybe do not feel welcomed or unable to for one reason or another. I am not saying all the churches are like this, but I have seen this in a few. I think if churches talk and get to know each other then the prejudices can not be so negative allowing for growth spiritually and accountability to help grow spiritually. If the church can grow spiritually internally then they can expand and help externally to those who are need. It is hard to help others properly when one is not alright as well. This is when burn outs happen. You cannot help as many people if everyone burns out quickly.

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  9. I believe it all boils down to why people choose to attend church in the first place. Are some doing it just for the sake of doing it? Are some feeling the need to give because they feel condemned to Hell if they don’t? Or, are they doing everything out of the kindness of their heart? These are all acceptable questions to ask when speaking of the rich or poor. However, it doesn’t make sense for this to be a reason for people drifting from the church. In fact, I believe that is a deep conviction within themselves if they feel that sort of way towards a person. Rich or poor we are all creations, pieces of art that are attending a church to fulfill the purposes he left behind. In hopes that we, as his disciples, would treat everyone as equally as he.

    I think certainly there is some favoritism and discrimination among the American churches, as this is the reason for the different denominations that are present. But it doesn’t mean that we should treat anyone any differently as we are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves as James implies. We have learned from our reading in Jobes and in James that he transposes the Law. It is obviously clear to us that this is the Royal Law as seen in James falls in line with the teachings of Jesus and the work that was carried out by him and his disciples during his early ministry. If we believe there is an evil arrogance or favoritism in the church, we will distance ourselves from the main source and never accomplish the goals we have set out for us as ambassadors.

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  10. This is absolutely an issue that is worthy of discussion. When I observe the different class structures in churches it reminds me of the way others are treated in schools systems. Typically the rich kids get a lot of attention in high school and are more likely to succeed and prosper. This is the same sort of interesting dilemma facing Americans today with issues like selfish capitalism and pursuit of riches becoming more and more prominent. I like that Jobes mentions James 5 as a “prophetic denouncement” of the rich. I can’t conceive in my head why I person who has much and whom much has been given to would take that responsibility on lightly. When understood in the light of the words of Jesus, wealth is dangerous tight rope to walk on. Jesus says himself to “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor” (10:21)/ Whether or not we interpret that literally in light of our own lives is obviously up for question, but he definitely does not have much good to say of the rich and does not advise this sort of monetary gluttony to be a trend in one’s own life for any stretch of time.

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  11. I feel that the 21st century church serves the poor out of self-pity and they are trying to put themselves up on a pedestal. (I am not saying that this is the case for everyone who is serving the poor but it tends to be the 21st century mindset.) Our culture is so embraced with highlighting only the good things that we do to promote ourselves to other people. Through the increase and outreach of social media, helping the poor more becomes a post of “look what good thing I did today”. Someone snaps a picture of them giving food to the homeless, and next thing you know they serve one for 2 hours and never go back. It is kind of like just doing it to check it off of the list. Rather we are called to serve the poor all the time, not just for a picture to post on social media.

    This idea reminds me of the parable of the widow giving two small copper coins as an offering (Matthew 12:41-44). She gave everything she had to God. Rather in today’s culture, we try and see how much we can hang onto and how little we can give to God. A famous theologian, Karl Barth, believes that to serve man you must serve God and to serve God you must serve man. I believe that we are called to see the poor around us and serve them. Not just for self-glorification, honor, and attention, but rather as an act of serving God. Regardless if it is serving the poor with your money or individual talents/skills, we are called to serve the poor in every capacity.

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  12. When it comes to the modern church and favoritism, I would say that at least the church I go to doesn’t show many signs of favoritism. Of course, i don’t really spend any time there aside from Sunday mornings, but it really does seem like a group of believers who is set on honoring God. THey aren’t focused on having favorites among newcomers or people as far as i can tell. But there are some churches/Christians out there for sure who are bent on receiving maybe the best care for their kid during the service, or they only talk to their friends in the greeting times during service. I would say that this lack of presence really of care for people who aren’t in the loop is only there because church has become this impersonal, once a week thing that doesn’t follow a proper New Testament model of doing church and worship. The faith that most Christians present is not as alive as it should be because it simply lacks works (James 2).

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  13. I really like what Jobes had to say about this subject, at the end of chapter 7: “James is not concerned with how much or how little his readers have; rather, he rebukes the “rich” person in each of us.” I think so often we look at those who are more fortunate than us and we become envious. We look at ourselves as being the poor that the rich need to assist. I know personally I can get that way when I look at my student debt and the money I still owe and think of all the students who have money to pay it all off. However, I know there are those less fortunate than myself as well, and looking at what we do have and not what we lack is essential to having peace in life. And once we begin to focus on the needs of others, and our own needs begin to get less and less significant, the life described by James becomes much more attainable.

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  14. I would agree that there is a major problem with spiritual arrogance in the Church today. I liked the thoughts that Jobes had in the text about rich and poor relating less to money and more to pride (230). When we think about it this way, James is rebuking all of us, not just those of us with lots of money (also 230). The church has issues with people not being loving and open to those deemed “lesser”. For example, the way that the church has handled the LGBT community is just not the right way of going about things. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). To illustrate this point, Jesus told a story about a people group that the Church reviled, the Samaritans, to illustrate who our neighbors are. The church needs to learn that all people are our neighbors, and love them accordingly, regardless of how “poor” they are.

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  15. This is a discussion that has been discussed over many churches throughout the years because we want to know how much to give according to the Law. Jesus clearly states, give to the poor (Matthew 19:21). But just how much really needs to be given to the poor? I feel like we take many demands from the Bible and put an exact amount on it so that we may do the minimum requirements to make us good in the eyes of the Lord. For example, we have decided that tithe is necessary of 10%, but as we remember from the woman with two coins, we are supposed to give everything (Mark 12:41). 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that we should give what is in our hearts and not what we feel obligated to give.

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  16. Looking at James as kind of the origin where Christians are given instructions on how to act and behave, it is interesting how taking care of the poor and being humble with what God has given those in the church has carried over. I believe that God has given people what they have (money and wealth), and they are to use that for His glory; to spread the gospel. I think that for those who are blessed with earthly possessions, that there is a problem with arrogance. It makes it easier to look down on those who do not have anything. As Christians, we need to remember that everyone, those less fortunate than us, are created in the Image of God; and the He cares for them.

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  17. Giving and helping the poor can go so much further than “just giving your money”. As for the rich person, I believe money and wealth can be given to enhance the kingdom of heaven. As for the poor, although they may not have material things, the ability to shine bright among the world by still caring, staying humble etc. Wealth and money is always favorite no matter the circumstance or setting. When putting greed and money above people and ministry, that is when things can become very dangerous. Living in the Western part of the world, it can be so easy to become guilty of this as truly following Jesus Christ requires being humble and obedient in our thoughts and actions, this includes our money as well. Jobes says “Rich believers have been humbled because no amount of wealth could buy what they have received in Christ; therefore their resources are worthless un view of the gospel and can be no source of pride within the Christian community.” (Jobes, 169). Jobes later on states the point that the poor and rich with both pass away therefore no amount a money is permanent.

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    • Troy,

      Great post! I see this so often in our society today. The amount of greed is absolutely astonishing in this world. Some people truly do not know that once they pass away the amount of money they have is not permanent. You stated that the poor that can still shine bright and can be humble in this world even though they do not have much is absolutely true! And most people that I have met throughout my life that are less fortunate than me are some of the most humble people I have ever met. These are the people that I have learned the most from in my life. Jobes states that “the humble believer has received every privilege from God, who gives without consideration of one’s material resources” (Jobes, 169). This shows no matter who you are as long as you are humble God will give you those privileges. Our material wealth truly means nothing to Him. Ephesians 4:2 states, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” This should be something we live by and encourage others to do as well. Thanks for sharing Troy!

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  18. The way money is used in modern church is a debate that I think is sorely needed and is currently not being had anywhere near actively enough. While there are many mission fields and ways in which churches focus on outreach, there’s so much money being spent on so many things that do not further the gospel of Christ. A big building can be nice to host a bunch of people, but are fancy windows really necessary? Is it truly imperative to have a snack table in every church?

    This is an issue our church has long had issue with. Getting “our own building” has been something on the church board’s mind for a long time, and while it is certainly of benefit, it is nowhere near a necessity. Our church has plenty of money that is just sitting around for “emergencies”, and very little of it has been used to help organizations. While outreach is finally starting to occur, I think it is an issue that needs further discussion.

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  19. James is an advocate for the poor and under privileged, and commands fellow believers to do the same throughout his book. The church is bound by this same commandment. To what degree does the church help the poor? I believe that it varies church by church, but there are certainly churches who live beyond their means, while ignoring the needs of the community poor. How often are churches buying new sound systems, remodeling their bathrooms, and updating their youth rooms? Of course these things make for a better experience for their congregation. But, what could that money be used for instead? I love Jobe’s discussion in her book about the rich/poor dilemma in relation to our eschatology. Eschatology usually is a future oriented discussion. The things to come, the future of the church, the destination of humans. “But eschatology…. intended not to predict the future but to motivate right living in the present”. (Jobes, p.225) If we truly believe that Christ is coming back, “eschatology”, how is that impacting the way we live now? How can we use the many blessings we’ve been given to spread the gospel. I believe that selfless giving would represent Christ far more than a paper track.

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  20. As I am look at the body of believers that make up the church I feel as if we as a collective do not do enough. If we are called to help those who are broken and struggling why is it that some people refuse to give when they know they can? Why do some people only give when their is a spotlight on them. According to Jobes, “All of James’s discussion of wealth is intended to put the Christian’s resources, no matter how little or much, under God’s sovereignty” (Letters to the Church, 170) If this is true than why is it we as Christians hold onto our money and save for consumerism. Do we not trust God enough to the point if we do give to have our future and our needs in his hands? I think that this stigma to have the best comes from pride, but yet we are also called not to have prideful arrogant ways. I know people who choose not to help the poor because they believe they got themselves into this mess, and they should get themselves out. These people are Christians. I would say there is a definitely a spiritual immaturity when we pick and choose what scripture to follow based on our bank accounts and selfish needs.

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