The Rich Have Fattened Themselves – James 5:1-6

The book of James is quote clear: those who are wealthy now face judgment in the eschatological judgment. They may be living a good life now, but the rich can only expect suffering and judgment in the future. James’s condemnation of the rich certainly resonates with the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the Lukan beatitudes (Luke 6:24-26).

Who are these rich people and what have they done to be attacked as the prophets once attacked Israel? Scot McKnight argues these are the wealthy who oppressed the poor members for the congregation in 1:19-27 and 2:14-17 (McKnight, James, 382, note 74). But these are not necessarily Christians: the prophets often addressed the nations. McKnight points out (rightly) we need to recognize James is not like a Pauline letter (addressed to a Christian community), but a prophetic letter sent to a broad range of Jewish readers, some of whom are not yet Christians.

It is possible the wealthy condemned in this paragraph would never hear James’s prophetic speech. If this is the case, then the function of the condemnation is to encourage the oppressed readers of the letter. But this too is similar to the prophetic literature. Did the nations condemned by Amos actually hear the words addressed to them?

James reflects both the prophetic tradition of Israel and the teaching of Jesus in his relentless attack on the rich who oppress the poor.  Condemning the wealthy is one of the most prominent features of the early prophets (Micah 3:1-4; Hos 2:4-7; Isaiah 3:11-5:1) as well as the apocalyptic judgment in 1 Enoch 95.

Micah 3:1–4 (ESV) And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?— 2 you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, 3 who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron. 4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.

1 Enoch 95:6-9 “Woe unto those who build oppression and injustice! Who lay foundations for deceit. They shall soon be demolished; and they shall have no peace. 7 Woe unto those who build their houses with sin! For they shall all be demolished from their foundations; and they shall fall by the sword. Those who amass gold and silver; they shall quickly be destroyed, 8 Woe unto you, O rich people! For you have put your trust in your wealth. You shall ooze out of your riches, for you do not remember the Most High. 9 In the days of your affluence, you committed oppression, you have become ready for death, and for the day of darkness and the day of great judgment.

James attacks the rich in a series of short phrases which sound like apocalyptic judgement.

First, the rich will weep and wail because misery has come upon them. Weeping is a common word in the New Testament and is associated with mourning. Wailing (ὀλολύζω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it is associated with apocalyptic judgment (Isa 13:6; 14:31; Zech 11:2; Amos 8:3). The Greek word sounds like a howl, and the Hebrew word it translates in Isa 13:6 (ילל) refers to an undulating wail or howl (cf., the Arabic walwala). It is often used in parallel to lament and for the wailing of an animal in the desert.

Misery (ταλαιπωρία) sometimes refers to extreme suffering (Job 30:3), but it is also associated violent destruction when the Lord Almighty comes to restore Israel (Joel 1:15). In LXX Ezekiel 45:9 the word is used for oppression by the rich (cf. LXX Psalm 11:6; ET Psalm 12:5).  In fact, Ezekiel 45:9 is a possible intertext for James 5:1 “Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Cease your evictions of my people”

Second, their hoarded riches will rot away and the rich will burn. James says money and clothes will corrode and become moth-eaten. This immediately calls to mind Matthew 6:19, Jesus draws a contrast between treasures in heaven were rust cannot destroy and moths cannot destroy (both James and Jesus use the same word, “treasure” (θησαυρίζω). But Job 13:28 has a similar metaphor for the temporary character of material possessions and Isaiah 51:8 is also very close (McKnight, James, 386). Once again, James (and Jesus) stand on the foundation of a prophetic-wisdom tradition.

This should not be a pastor’s house

This hoarded wealth is the result of oppression of the poor (5:4). This verse claims the wealthy have robbed the poor of the proper wages. The verb (ἀποστερέω) refers to frau or embezzlement (BDAG). Leviticus 19:13 specifically forbids defrauding one’s neighbors and the general principle of the Law was paying the laborer at the end of the day (Deut 24:15; Jer 22:13). This is another case where James may know the parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:8, but the wisdom tradition regularly condemns the man who withholds wages.

Third, because the wealthy have lived lives of luxury in this life, they are “fattened for the Day of the Slaughter” (v. 5). The “day of slaughter is a vivid image drawn from the prophetic tradition of a great slaughter of God’s enemies when God fights for his people (for example, Zech 11:4-7; Isaiah 30:25, 34:2, Rev 19:17-19; 2 Enoch 50:2-6). Like the animals they fattened to be slaughtered in the Temple, these wealthy elites are about to be slaughtered.

These elites have lived a life of extreme luxury. The first verb (τρυφάω, only here in the New Testament) has the sense of revelry, carousing and the second (σπαταλάω) is “to indulge oneself beyond the bounds of propriety” (cf. 1 Tim 5:6, BDAG). The word is very rare, appearing only in the LXX in Ezekiel 16:49 to describe the indulgences of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is as if these wealthy elites led lives like the Romans!

If James is writing prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, then this great fiery judgment likely refers to the slaughter of the rich and powerful in Jerusalem, people who have used the Temple to make themselves wealthy and have “fattened themselves” for the Roman slaughter of Judea and Jerusalem. In fact, this helps explain the next obscure line in verse 6. The rich condemned “the righteous person” (v. 6). If James is attacking the wealthy aristocratic priests who have oppressed the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, then they are the very ones who condemned the righteous Jesus to death.

Both Jesus and James condemn those who have enjoyed wealth at the expense of the poor and use vivid language to describe their fate at the eschatological judgment. Does this mean James condemns all wealth as evil? Does Jesus expect the true disciples to live voluntary lives of poverty?

More chilling is the possible application of this teaching to the contemporary church. There are many examples of people who have enriched themselves through their churches, often harvesting money from the poor to support lavish lifestyles. Much of the American church is obviously under the sway of the “health and wealth” gospel, so are African and Asian churches. What would James have to say to us about our great wealth?

17 thoughts on “The Rich Have Fattened Themselves – James 5:1-6

  1. To read this section as a condemnation of the rich doesn’t seem to square well with OT narratives re. Abraham, Job, and Solomon, none of whom were condemned for their great wealth, arguably greater than any in James’ mind when he wrote. It seems much more likely that the issue in James is the WAY they got their wealth – through the mistreatment of the poor and dishonest wages (both condemned in the OT).
    I’ve had some very wealthy people in my congregations who were also very generous with others and who supported the Lord’s work extensively. I was grateful for their wealth.

    Like

    • James is writing like an OT prophet here (and throughout the letter), and there is very little good to be said for the wealthy in the prophets. Certainly *how* they obtained their wealth is an issue, but (thinking like an eighth century prophet), what they thought their wealth meant is also important. In the context of the Micah quote above, the elite and wealthy assumed they were righteous, because God appeared to be blessing the with material blessings.That is how the blessing and cursing in the covenant works, after all!

      The prophets (and James) break the connection between wealth and righteousness. Job is not rich because he is righteous, God simply blessed him. Solomon was not wealthy because he was righteous, God granted him that wealth. I think the same can be said for Abraham, God was going to bless him with wealth because that is what God wanted to do, not as a reward for covenant faithfulness.

      By the way, I bought your book this morning, hopefully you will get rich from it!

      Like

  2. Agree on all counts. I mis-read your post, or maybe went into it with a preconceived mind based on the title.
    Rich? Not likely with Amazon’s royalty structure. Dinner out at McDonald’s? That’s a possibility.

    Like

  3. The textbook, “Letters to the Church,” by Karen Jobes explains that the wealthy people that James talks about are the ones who gained their wealth from oppressing the poor. They did not earn their wealth. Jobes says, “By putting the accumulation of money above love for others, such people are the ‘adulterous people’ who stand in enmity against God because of their friendship with the world” (Jobes, 2011, pg. 170). Therefore, I do not believe that James condemns all wealth as evil. I believe James condemns wealth that was not earned or bought with the wrong intentions. It has to do with the heart and the character of the person more than the money. If James were here in this day I believe he would condemn some modern churches. There are modern churches that are greedy and take pride in their wealth. Sometimes in our churches there are corrupt leaders who manage the money. James would view this as loving the accumulation of wealth over
    the love of people. There are many churches that do use their money for the Lord too. James would be both pleased and displeased.
    -McKenzie McCord-

    Like

  4. I really enjoyed the ending of your second paragraph. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Although the rich people James was never addressing may never read what he wrote- his condemnation- it can still be of comfort to the oppressed poor that were reading it. They can live knowing that someday their oppressors will pay for their wrong doings. I think that we can apply this to our lives in many ways. There are people who wrong us, and we may never get the chance to tell them how they hurt us. But we can live our lives knowing that God is just, he’ll punish anyone who needs it, and in the mean time all we can do is forgive them and let God be the judge. In looking for articles for my final paper, some said that rich/versus poor is the theme if James. However, Jobes spends much of chapter seven discussing the royal law. The rich treating the poor fairly would fall under the umbrella of the royal law. I think it makes more sense to say the royal law is the theme of James.

    Like

  5. Oh boy! Here is an interesting topic. Today in 2018, we see this same truth throughout the western world and the globe in that rich people stereotypically aren’t the kindest people towards the poor. James gives the poor the comfort in knowing the rich will one day pay for their wrong doings. Jobes says that “Most people have a very short straight sighted view of the future for those beliefs might extend to living now in a way that meets their affordable comfortably retirement.” James as well as other verses throughout the Old and New Testament show that the afterlife is something to consider therefore live according to that truth. This whole topic reminds me of when Jesus says “He who loves his life will lose it, he who hates their life in this world shall keep it” in John 12:25

    Like

  6. Looking through some of the comments I noticed Mr. MacDonald’s comments. I agree with some of the statements that were made, but I also think there could be more to the issue. “Wealth per se is not evil, and the Bible does not condemn having wealth. But because of the evil bent of fallen human nature… sway the rich to use their wealth in ways that serve their own interests…” (Jobes, 228). Money and wealth is an object, so in itself it can do no evil. However, the applications of wealth is what can be sinful and evil. Wealth can corrupt people, as seen in many cases with people who have been poor and become rich overnight. However, not all wealth is bad. Having wealth, making a large income and having a large sum of money in the bank account, in itself is not bad. The way people view and use wealth can be bad and sinful. I believe that if the owner of this wealth remains humble, having this wealth is not in itself a sin. In James it says, “…Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Submit yourselves, then, to God…” (4:6-7). Wealth and money is simply a tool. If the user of this tool remains humble and submissive to God and his desires the tool of money will not become evil. Money can be used for many purposes that are honoring to God. Money can be given to church, charity, mission funds or even to poor people in the community. Even if the money is not all given away, it can still be used in unsinful ways. A few of these ways could be to pay off debts, go into a savings account for retirement or children’s education, or investing in other people and their companies. The use of wealth is not always black and white, however if the user of this wealth stays humble and uses this wealth to glorify God, it is not sinful.

    Like

  7. Jobes brings up the idea of it being important to treat the rich how God sees the rich, not how the world sees the rich. The majority of the world sees wealth as one of the greatest goals and achievements in life, and even most Christians are terrified by the concept of truly living in poverty. While God might not necessarily want every Christian to be poor, although there are potential arguments for that, God hates disobedience and selfishness. In America, with wealth comes power, and with power comes many temptations that can turn one away from the Lord, such as fear of losing the obtained wealth, the ability to fulfill one’s dreams with finances, and the ability to have power and control over other people through wealth. Wealth does not guarantee selfishness, but it’s a lot easier to be selfish when you have stuff to be selfish with.

    Like

  8. When it comes to the question, “Does this mean James condemns all wealth as evil?” I do not think James thought that all wealth was evil but back then there were a lot of wealthy people that oppressed the poor. And these are the kind of people that never really worked for their money. He just probably saw so much oppression by the rich that through his writings made it seem that he condemned all wealth as evil. According to our textbook Jobes explains, “Wealth per se is not evil, and the Bible does not condemn having wealth. But because of the evil bent of fallen human nature, greed, selfishness…the rich to use their wealth in ways that serve their own interests at the expense of the less fortunate” (Jobes, 409). As I already stated, this is the side of wealth that James only witnessed. It can cause people to lose their ways and make wrong decisions. Today, there are numerous wealthy people that donate money to help the poor and are not overcome with selfish desires. An example I can think of would be Bill Gates he owns his own charitable foundation which helps with emergency relief, poverty, and even education. Now, when it comes to the matters of the modern church I could definitely see James very disappointed. Because there are these “mega” Churches which generate so much money and do not share with those less fortunate. An example of this would be just last year during hurricane Harvey. There was one “mega” church that would not open its doors to people who needed shelter. They only opened their doors after a ton of backlash on social media platforms. Deuteronomy 15:11 states, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” We should always be ready to lend a helping hand especially those who are rich. Overall, I do not think James believed all wealth was evil because there are good people in this world who are wealthy and decide to share their wealth.

    Like

  9. I believe James would view Christian wealth as a means to care for the hungry and those in need. In the beginning of chapter 2, James asks the question if it is any good that someone wishes someone compared to actually caring for the needs they have. This makes me believe that James does not necessarily see wealth as wrong as long as it is being used to help the less fortunate. Epicureans of Greece may say that since pleasure is the goal in life (Pg. 206-207), one should stay away from giving to the poor for fear of discomfort. James condemns the rich in world, emphasizing how worthless building up treasures on earth is. (James 5:1) This reflects Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19. James would agree that if one did not have wealth, they would not be able to give it. As long as Christians manage their funds well and do not use it for the sole purpose of “luxury and self-indulgence” (5:5), I think it is okay for Christians to have an abundance of wealth. They have to realize that the Lord could take away their wealth in a blink of an eye and that they should be okay if that in fact does happen. That would reveal whether or not their trust is in their God or the possessions they own.

    Like

  10. I often struggle with the idea of people in full-time ministry being “rich” it seems counterintuitive somehow. There is really no example of a biblical hero that has great wealth except for maybe Job, but he lost everything. In fact, I think of the rich young ruler and what Jesus said about the rich entering the kingdom of heaven. I think that the writer of James would only want people to view wealth as something that belongs solely to God alone. God may endow some people with the authority to govern His wealth, but ultimately it all belongs to Him.

    Like

  11. It is certain that Jesus and James both use vivid and bold language when referring to the rich/wealthy who look down at the poor and only enjoy a life centered around wealth. However, when it comes to the questions of if James condemns all wealth as evil i would say no. I do not think that wealth is the problem. Moreover, it is what wealth does and the effects that it has on a structural aspect. Society is corrupt because of wealth and the barriers it creates. It was back when Jesus and James walked the earth and it still is today. What wealth does is assign barriers within society. Communities can come to stand still due to wealth. Some believe their wealth puts them in a separate category. However, I believe true “wealth” is knowing and believing in God. When thinking about this post a quote in Jobes resonated with me. It states, “the criterion of wealth for assigning honor is false, and God will reverse it when the rich perish and the lowly are honored with their place in God’s kingdom” (Jobes, 267). Therefore, i don’t think James condemns all wealth. I think James condemns the barriers created by wealth and the actions it causes from individuals.

    Like

  12. Looking into the lives of Old Testament characters we can see God bless them with wealth. This rules out the idea or presupposition that wealth is evil. God even re-payed Job double of everything that He took. Job was blessed by God in this. God chooses who to bless, but He cannot make you give that money away. The Bible in this sense declares us to give to the poor, and help to restore them. This for me personally does not mean giving them money but helping them with food and other things they may need. James does not condemn all wealth, but those who are irresponsible with the wealth that God has blessed them with. If James were to condemn all wealth He would be contradicting God. I think there are many in the church nowadays that would be condemned by James and even Jesus because of the selfish nature of the lives we live. We are focused on consumerism instead of restoring the lost and broken in practical ways.

    Like

  13. As we grow older, it’s more and more difficult to tithe. Every cent we earn goes to paying bills and food. We always do so when we have other income coming in (few and far between.) I feel guilty for not putting an envelope in the collection plate, but I know that time and talent are also acceptable to God. Our dollars should first go to those in need – then to outreach and growth. We shouldn’t be like the government and look at big building or beautification projects. Those things will follow, but should never be the focal point. I belong to a very small congregation. The average age is somewhere in the 60s. We can do so much good without spending a cent, even though many of those good things cost money. Once we put the focus on how much we’re taking in as a church, rather than how much we’re reaching out to the community to bring others the good news of the Gospel, the monetary income will begin to flourish. We cannot out give God.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.