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?

Life is Uncertain – James 4:14-16

James reflect a common image from both the Old Testament and philosophy that life is short and no one can know what the future will hold (v. 14) The real problem with making arrogant plans for the future is no one knows the length of their life.

Borrowing a common metaphor from the Old Testament, James describes life as a mist. An early morning fog can seem substantial, but it will be gone as soon as the sun rises.

Hosea 13:3 (ESV) Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window.

Wisdom of Solomon 2:4–5 (NRSV) Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. 5 For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

Rather than despairing over the brevity of life, James says everything ought to be done in the light of the will of the Lord (v. 15). This sort of phrase is so common to modern Christians we hardly think about saying “if it be your will” during prayer. But as Sophie Laws points out, this phrase does not have any real precedent from the Hebrew Bible. Everything that happens is God’s will, so there is no wishing that God’s will happens (or not).

Rather, Laws says “the lord wills” is “is part of Graeco-Roman idiom from Socrates’s commending of it to Alcibiades (Plato, Alc. i. 135d)… it was a knock on wood phrase in ancient cultures” (Laws, James, 192). A Roman might say deo volente, “God wills” as a kind of “if-all-else-fails” hopeful saying when beginning a task that need some luck (McKnight, James, 37). Paul uses a similar phrase in connection with his travel plans in 1 Corinthians (4:19, “I will come to you if the Lord wills;” 16:7 “I wish to spend some time with you if the Lord permits”) and in Acts 18:21.

The recent secular reaction against the phrase “thoughts and prayers” after a disaster is a sobering reminder that Christians throw out phrases without thinking. So many people say things like “our prayers are with the victims” after a disaster, but I have often wondered if they news reader really prayed for anyone (ever). Aside from a general misunderstanding of prayer and a cynical reduction of one’s piety to the occasional “moment of silence,” the criticism is coveting to me since there have been many times someone has asked me to pray for them about some specific issue and I have failed to pray, or even remember the request. The phrase “I will pray for you “becomes a nice thing to say even if I do not actually pray.

I think most Christians I know really do understand what prayer is about and do in fact pray for victims and their families at the time of a disaster. But too many people use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” like a Roman might use “if god wills.” It is a knock-on-wood phrase with little meaning, This is what James is upset about, people who make their plans and toss a quick “if God wills” into the mix to make it sound spiritual.

The person who believes they are in control of their lives are arrogant, boasting in things they have cannot control. The merchant’s boasts are pretentious. The noun ἀλαζονεία is used to describe the pretentious boasting of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Macc 9:8). The merchants are foolish to boast in their planning, shrew business sense, and amazing profits because it was God who provided it all to them in the first place.

How do we live life guided by the will of God, yet responsibly plan for the future? As modern Americans we always plan for the future (retirement plans, for example, college savings for children, etc.) There is a balance between making wise plans for the future and knowing the future is uncertain. It is important to get a job in order to provide for your family, to save money to provide for yourself when you retire, all the Dave Ramsey things. But the wise person does not hold on to that accumulated wealth too tightly since circumstances may destroy all your saved wealth.

This kind of wise attitude toward preparing for the future has to be balanced with a clear understanding that everything can change in an instant. Some disaster could change everything so that your plans have to change in order to survive. As with Job, our attitude has to be “the Lord blesses, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Planning for the Future – James 4:13-14

James offers one final example of the arrogance of the tongue: making plans for the future and the flippant use of the phrase “if the Lord wills.” Even today, this is quite similar to saying “sure, I will pray for you.” Christians tend to add this to prayers as if we are giving the Lord an option out of responding positively to our prayers (“give so-and-so healing, if it be your will.”)

Who is James addressing in this passage? Are they “international business men” who travel the Empire making profits? If so, the problem is not travel or business, but rather their arrogance that they are building up reliable wealth for the future. The arrogance of some business owners is their assumption they can go anywhere and make a profit without giving a thought to the Lord’s will.

Jewish businessmen traveled throughout the Empire managing all sorts of businesses. In the New Testament, Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers in Rome who relocated to Corinth and were active in Ephesus as well. In Acts 16, Lydia is a business woman (a seller of purple) from Thyatira now living in Philippi. Even Paul could be considered a travelling business person since he was able to work in the tent trade any city he happened to visit.

In the Second Temple Period, international business “was seen as a way to obtain the fortune needed to purchase the estates on which the “good life” might be lived” (Davids, James, 172). Ralph Martin says “there is also a fairly well documented background about Jewish traveling merchants in the period, among whom the aristocratic Sadducees, who gained part of their wealth by foreign trade and commercial endeavor” (Martin, James, 169). Jewish entrepreneurs were not the only ones to make huge sums of money. Ralph Martin offers the example of Ananias, the High Priest A.D. 47–55. Josephus called him “a great procurer of money” (Josephus, Ant. 20.205).

The problem these business people plan for the future without acknowledging the Lord. There is nothing unusual or sinful about their business plans, but they are made without any reference to God. “We will go, we will spend time, we will trade and we will make a profit.” McKnight points out this is a claim that they control time (today or tomorrow), place (such and such a city), duration (a year or two), and their goals (profits) (McKnight, James, 370).

The problem is not their planning or the making of profits, but rather the arrogance of claiming control of every aspect of their lives without considering God’s hand in their business activity. Proverbs 27:1 warns against boasting about tomorrow; Job 14:1, a person’s life is short and full of trouble. 1 Enoch 97. 8 has a similar warning:

1 Enoch 97.8 Woe unto you who gain silver and gold by unjust means; you will then say, ‘We have grown rich and accumulated goods, we have acquired everything that we have desired.

Even Stoicism warned against the folly of planning for the future: “no one has any right to draw for himself upon the future” (Seneca, Ep. ci. 5).

James is perhaps aware of Jesus’s parables of the rich fools and the dangers of being anxious over the future. In Luke 12:16-21 a rich fool makes plans to expand his business without any account of the Lord’s will and dies without enjoying his wealth. The parable-like story in Luke 16:19-31 describes a foolish rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus. In Matthew 6:34 Jesus says “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” and in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he

Although there is nothing wrong with doing business and making a profit, it is dangerous to rely on that wealth since the future is uncertain. But how does the modern, western (especially American) Christian live this ideal out in a culture which is completely inundated with relying on one’s own wealth and savings for the future? Can we really plan wisely for the future yet hold loosely to that plan since we cannot really know what will happen tomorrow?

Can we really avoid planning for the future in order to “let go and let God”? Where is the balance?

 

A Warning for Teachers – James 3:1-2

James tells his readers “not many should become teachers” (3:1). Why does James make this command?

It is possible he is concerned about the messianic community having too many teachers, or maybe that some unqualified people were aspiring to be teachers. Jesus told his disciples they ought to avoid meaning called “rabbi” in order to avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matt 23:6-8).

The reason for this warning is that those who teach will be judged with “greater strictness.” James includes himself in this warning, although the ESV and NIV add the words “we who teach” as the subject of “will receive greater judgment.”  Similarly, Jesus said “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). The teacher will receive “particularly rigorous scrutiny” at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10–15)” (Laws, James, 144).

The reason for this scrutiny is the teacher speaks more, therefore has more opportunity to say things worthy of judgment. If the wise person is to be slow to speak (2:12), then teacher is in danger of judgment because of his constant speaking! (The more you talk, the deep the hole you dig).

James is concerned with too many teachers talking in unloving ways (McKnight, James, 269).  For teachers in the Jewish or Greco-Roman world, a teacher was judged by his popularity, Just as happens in the modern world, a popular teacher is entertaining. This may mean they use humor and amusing stories as a part of their presentation, and anytime you use humor there is a possibility of offending someone (or everyone).

Teachers are often guilty of making a careless aside which derails everything they were trying to say. I knew a teacher some years ago who made cutting jokes and remarks, often under his breath as if no one could hear them. He regularly offended his students and really did not have the influence he assumed he had. I have done this myself, trying to make a joke and it comes out totally wrong and I destroy a relationship (and any chance to teach that person a thing!)

Some teachers attain a level of popularity which prevents them from addressing some issues which are controversial. The larger the following the weaker the theology. For example, Joel Osteen has very thin theology but a massive church; a conservative pastor preaching the Bible has every theological T crossed and every I dotted, but they have a church of fifteen elderly people. Joel Osteen cannot speak out against a particular sin because he would lose a section of his congregation that enjoys that sin and does not come to church to be preached against.

In addition to careless speech, a church teacher is presented as an authority on God’s word, Christian practice and theology. With any authority comes great responsibility. When asked, a teacher will gladly give their opinion, even if they have no real preparation or expertise to address the topic (worse: ask a blogger a question!)

Perhaps an extreme example for contemporary culture, pop-stars often give their opinion on matters of science, government, religion, etc. even though they have no education which qualifies them to be an expert. That sort of “careless speech” is influential because people like and trust them. So too a teacher might offer an expert opinion on a theological or ethical issue when they have not really done the work it requires to understand the issue, and therefore lead people astray.

It is likely James has in mind careless speech which leads to division within the church. There is nothing in James which implies the elders (some of whom are likely teachers) are deficient in their theology, but through careless speech they may be creating a divisive atmosphere in the small diaspora Jewish churches. Paul certainly had to deal with this in Corinth, there is no reason to doubt diaspora Jews were any less divisive.

How ought we evaluate public teachers of the Bible? Is it fair they are held to a higher standard just because they are teachers?

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.