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 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?