James 4:13-5:11 – Rich and Poor (part two)

This week we’re continuing in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. This is part two of our focus on James 4:13-5:11.

Yesterday, James (probably drawing on Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool) has a go at wealthy Christians who are double-minded: they say that God’s in control but by their actions they show that God is far from their thinking. For a start, they forget that – just like the rich fool – God could take it all away from them in an instant. But more than that, they are thinking selfishly, storing up for themselves rather than being rich toward others. They are sinning by omission:

4:17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

Woe to the rich oppressors

So it’s no surprise that the very next thing James says – at the start of chapter 5 – is a judgement on the rich who do nothing for the poor. Like the prophets of old, he pronounces coming judgement on them, because of what they have not done. Have a listen:

5:1-3 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

There are some strong connections here with what Jesus says when commenting on the parable of the rich fool, in Luke 12. About seeking first the kingdom of God. Instead of hoarding like the rich fool, he says:

12:33-34 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Both James and Jesus are clear: it’s sinful to hoard wealth; it’s sinful not to be generous to others, sharing with them what God has blessed us with. To be indifferent to the poor is a sin of omission. Which means it’s still sin.

And ultimately, that kind of attitude will destroy us, too. Hoarding material wealth is pointless in light of eternity. In light of the fact that we’re not in control. That we don’t get to decide how long we enjoy our wealth for. And that, in the end, it will all perish. It rots. It fades. It rusts. The only thing that will remain is the evidence that we were selfish. That our treasure was not God and his kingdom, but ourselves and our comfort.

James then continues his rant, but moves beyond just sins of omission:

5:4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

This is in direct defiance of the OT law in Leviticus:

Lev 19:13 Do not defraud or rob your neighbour. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

James continues:

5:5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

They’ve lived the high life, and become fat from their wealth. But in light of the coming judgement, it’s just like an animal being fattened ready to be killed and eaten.

5:6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

This verse seems to be an allusion to a first century BC Jewish writing called The Wisdom of Solomon. The context of that is quite interesting, as it mocks the reasoning of rich fools. They think: life is short, and then that’s it – there’s no judgement, only death. So let’s enjoy it while we can: eat, drink, and be merry. Let’s exploit the poor, the widow, the elderly – anyone who’s weak.

And let’s persecute the righteous, because their presence is an inconvenient reminder of our godlessness.

But that’s foolish thinking, say James & Jesus. Because there is judgement. There is a consequence. Don’t think you can be a true follower of Jesus while neglecting the poor, or even exploiting them.

4:17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
5:3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.
Luke 12:21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” 

To think about

So what’s this got to do with me? I mean, I pay taxes, which goes to fund social security for the poor here in Australia, and overseas aid for the poor elsewhere. I have two sponsor children. I fill a shoebox once a year for Samaritan’s Purse. I try to remember to put money into the little welfare tin when my kids take bread from the bread table after church. You can’t say I don’t care for the poor. At least a bit.

All those things are good. But in my opinion, they come under the category of “that’s the least I can do”, given what God has blessed me with living here in Australia, with a standard of living that puts me in the top 1% of the world’s population. Where some days my most pressing problem seems to be that my set top box recorder is recording my favourite shows at a lower resolution than it should. (Frustrating, isn’t it…?)

So apart from the obvious – giving directly to the poor in my community, by things like food hampers – or the even more obvious – sponsoring more children through Baptist World Aid – what can we do?

Now be careful. You may not want to listen to some of these suggestions. Because if you think they’re good ideas that Christians should do – then they will be good that you know you ought to do. And if you don’t do it, then that’s sin for you. Ignorance will no longer be bliss. So here goes.

Firstly, there’s Fairtrade. You know, where you buy the products with the Fairtrade logo on them. Showing that their production has not exploited farmers and workers. That a fair price has been paid for those goods – even if it means you have to pay a little bit more. (Read more at https://coffeewiththeking.org/coffee/)

It also means that we’re not indirectly exploiting the poor – holding back their wages so we can have cheap coffee and clothes, and continue to grow fat from our wealth. As Christian consumers, we can do our best to make sure we’re paying foreign workers a fair price.

Secondly, there’s foreign aid. It works. Since 1990, studies have estimated foreign aid to be responsible for saving 14,000 child deaths per day. But there are still many more children dying. And I’m cranky at both sides of politics for this one – in Australia, both major parties have pledged to raise our level of foreign aid, but each time have deferred it when it came to the crunch.

Again, our government needs to hear our voice on this. Write to your local member. Sign the petition at oxfam.org.au. Hold our politicians accountable to their commitments on foreign aid.

And of course, there are refugees. Let’s not pretend it’s a simple issue, and I’m not going to pretend to solve it now. We need to stop them arriving in unsafe conditions that puts their lives in danger. We need to think about how we resettle people in places where they’re not just going to be ghettoed, and left to become resentful at their lack of opportunity.

But surely the competition we’ve recently seen between our political leaders as to who can be the toughest is not the way forward. Surely God’s grace toward us compels us – as it did the nation of Israel – to care for the poor, the foreigner, the oppressed.

As Christians, let’s seek to be leaders in the debate, avoiding the extremes. Not a naïve open door policy that leads to social unrest and division. And not a hardline, compassionless nationalism that puts our own interests ahead of others. After all, that’s the opposite of what the gospel calls us to do.

Now you may disagree with some of what I’ve said – in terms of the detail. And that’s fine. How we can best care for the poor and oppressed is open to debate. But that we do care for them is most certainly not up for discussion. As Jesus said:

Luke 12:33-34 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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