James 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Don't Be Materialistic

The worldview of the preceding paragraph was that God rules over time and requires our obedience to his will in all use of it. The same worldview is extended now to encompass material wealth: God rules over wealth and requires our obedience to his will in all use of it. This is very much an Old Testament view as well. Leviticus 25, for example, asserts that the land and the people belong to God. This fact put the Israelites in the position of tenants rather than owners (Lev 25:23); they were obligated not to take advantage of each other and not to enslave each other (vv. 17, 42); they were to follow instead the admonition "Fear your God" (vv. 17, 43). James's paragraph flows from the same worldview and could be summarized with the same admonition.

Here a more definite case can be made that James is speaking rhetorically to unbelievers who are not receiving the letter. The evidence is fourfold. First, he refrains from his frequent addressing of "brothers," to which he will return in 5:7. Second, though he also refrained from any explicitly Christian address in 4:13-17, he goes beyond that in 5:1-6, employing his specific label hoi plousioi ("you rich people"). Third, James writes to the rich not with instruction or exhortation but with thorough condemnation, refusing to give the slightest hint that any redemption is expected. Finally, his approach is in keeping with many Old Testament passages condemning rich oppressors and affirming their needy, righteous victims (Ps 109:31; Ps 146; Is 5:22-24; Amos 2:6-7). James's passage similarly fits with Jesus' teaching about the poor and the "rich" (plousioi) in Luke 6:20-26. (For further discussion of this topic, see my appendix on the identity of the rich in James.)

Viewing the paragraph in this light, James would be intending two purposes for Christians as they read how he would address the rich. His Christian readers are suffering many trials, including economic hardship from persecution by the rich (2:6-7). These suffering Christians would be easily tempted to become discouraged, resentful, vengeful, jealous and covetous, and so to become just as thoroughly corrupted by materialism as are their rich oppressors. The first intended effect on the Christian readers, then, is encouragement from the fact that judgment will come to the rich, so the sufferers may leave that judgment to God and so persevere in righteousness without envying the rich. The second intended purpose is warning: judgment does come upon such sin, so they should be careful to avoid becoming materialistic themselves.The Coming Misery of the Rich (5:1-3)

The first half of the paragraph is a description of the awful misery that will come upon the rich. In the first place, they will lose their wealth. But that by itself is far too tame an exposition of James's words. The rich will find their hoarded wealth rotted, their fine clothes moth-eaten and their treasured gold and silver corroded (images that recall Jesus' words in Mt 6:20). James gives vivid and terrible images of the destruction of their wealth, indicating that the rich will experience horror and despair over their loss. They will weep and wail in misery. The verb wail is onomatopoeic--ololyzo--adding to the vividness of the imagery by sounding like the wailing it describes. It conveys the sounds of "weeping accompanied by recurring shouts of pain" (Kistemaker 1986:156), bringing to mind the experience of excruciating grief or anguish. The rich will lose everything they have devoted themselves to and everything they have relied upon. Theirs will be the despair of people who discover their dreams and treasures destroyed forever.

If the rich were only misguided in devoting themselves to their wealth, this first misery would be enough. But there is a second level to their misery: the destruction of the wealth will consume the rich people themselves. The imagery expresses forcefully that their sin has been a deliberate pursuit of evil. Literally, James says, the rust or corrosion on the gold and silver will be the active agent against the rich. The corrosive action will take two forms: first to testify against the rich (acting as evidence of their guilt) and then to eat their flesh like fire (acting as punishment for their sin).

There are, then, three miseries specified for the rich: despair from losing their wealth, guilt from the evidence against them and horrible pain from being devoured in the judgment upon them.The Specific Sins of the Rich (5:3-6)

Now we find out why these rich people are so condemned, as the second half of the paragraph is the indictment against them. The charges may be summarized as "greed and injustice." The greed of the rich has consisted of hoarding wealth and living in luxury and self-indulgence. The injustice has consisted of cheating workers of their wages and condemning and murdering innocent people. But these charges are not listed calmly, with the decorum of courtroom order; they seem to tumble off James's pen in outrage against gross immorality. Moral outrage such as this ought to come from one deserving James's reputation as "the Just."

These charges are made with reference to certain days--the last days and the day of slaughter. If these are both references to the time of God's judgment, they produce a twin irony. The rich have hoarded wealth-only to lose it in the last days. They have indulged themselves--only to become fat for their own slaughter. The first phrase most likely does refer to the future judgment (indicated by the future tense of the verbs in the middle of 5:3), and reflects the common apostolic viewpoint that the first coming of Jesus has already ushered in the last days, which will culminate in a future judgment. James, however, is not particularly amused with the irony of it all. He is moved far more by the offensiveness of the sin, that the rich have dared to hoard wealth even in the days when they should be most concerned to repent. In the context of the last days, when the rich should be most in fear of God, their greed amounts to a mocking of God, a hurling of arrogant insults into God's face.

The latter phrase, the day of slaughter, may also refer to God's judgment on the rich (as Davids contends, 1982:178-79). Certainly there is an Old Testament tradition for the image of God's judgment as a slaughter of his enemies (Is 34:5-8; Jer 12:3; 46:10). Yet there are problems with this view. The exact phrase does not occur in the Septuagint (as Davids acknowledges, 1982:178), and the connotations of the phrase are not clear (as Laws admits, 1980:203); it could be a description of the violent treatment of the poor by the rich (as Dibelius defends, 1976:239). The meaning advocated by Dibelius becomes the more likely one because of the immediate parallelism that emerges between 5:5 and 5:6, which could be paraphrased:

You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence,
you have fattened yourselves
--even in a day when you are slaughtering others!

You have condemned,
you have murdered the innocent one
--who is not even opposing you!

The grammar lends support to the parallelism by each verse's series of aorist verbs to list the actions of the rich. These two series of verbs are climaxed by the "slaughtering" and the "not opposing," which form a pair of complementary images about the same scene. Finally, the meaning fits with the entire paragraph's tone of moral outrage. Some have found the last sentence, "He is not opposing you" (or "not resisting you"), to be awkward and anticlimactic. The parallelism removes the dilemma by bringing out the fact that James is reaching the very peak of his moral outrage, as if shouting out the final, incredible and utterly offensive fact of what the rich are doing. They are victimizing people who are not even "opposing" them as enemies and who do not have the power to be "resisting" them. By this, James may also be encouraging his Christian readers to continue in nonresistance, reminding them that in doing so they are following Jesus' instruction in Matthew 5:39.

The two verbs translated lived in luxury and self-indulgence assess the lifestyle of the rich to be (by the first verb) disgustingly selfish and (by the second verb) extravagantly wasteful, "going beyond pleasure to vice" (Motyer 1985:167). The term condemned (katedikasate) in 5:6 is a judicial term, recalling James's earlier reference to injustices suffered by Christians through the courts in 2:6. The verb murdered could then refer to an indirect killing of the poor through control of a corrupt legal system by the rich. It may also refer to a direct killing of the poor by the rich.

A perspective from the standpoint of the very poor is provided by the Latin American Elsa Tamez, who views this verse from "the angle of oppression." She observes that the day laborers of James's day would have been so poor that they depended on daily wages for survival. "This salary was already low, but for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (5:6)" (1990:20).

These terms give us a frightening glimpse of the injustice in which Christians lived, with all the power in the hands of the wealthy. Some have taken the singular innocent man, or "righteous man," to refer specifically to Christ. (Cf. Motyer 1985:168-69.) But it is difficult to imagine how James would have referred to the major offense of killing Christ without making it more explicit; instead, the term is probably a generic way of representing any of the innocent victims of the rich. However, for the application of this passage to our lives, Motyer is right to remind us of "the lone and wonderful figure of the Lord Jesus," whose model of nonresistance is ultimately "the most demanding example and the sweetest consolation in time of oppression" (1985:169). The present tense of the verb antitassetai ("opposing") simply reflects James's emphasis that the rich are continuing their ugly practice even in the present time. If the parallelism with 5:5 is correct, the slaughter of the poor should also be understood as a continuing offense.

Even with slaughter referring to the killing of the poor, the prospect of God's judgment is certainly James's message. These rich have arrogantly abused their positions of wealth to exercise evil power over others. This sin is answered by assurance that the cries of their victims are heard by the "Lord Sabaoth." The title Sabaoth is a transliteration of a Hebrew word for "army." The title is therefore often translated "Lord of Hosts," depicting God's position as mighty leader of a huge army, or "the Lord Almighty," as in the NIV. It is one of the most majestic images offered by the various Old Testament names of God. James is referring to God's awesome power and authority to judge sin. We are to fear this omnipotent God--fear him so much that we flee from the sins of the rich.

At the beginning of the discussion of 5:1-6, I identified two purposes (encouragement and warning) James would have for Christians who are reading how he would address their rich, non-Christian oppressors. His encouragement is for them to leave judgment to God while they persevere in righteousness. His warning is for them to beware of God's judgment and flee from materialistic sin themselves. The implication for Christians with money today is that a huge responsibility goes with the possession of wealth. We dare not treat lightly the danger of sin. We dare not assume that because we are living respectable lives we are safe in our possession of wealth. James has warned us to take extreme care that we not tolerate in ourselves the sin of greed (in a self-indulgent lifestyle) or the sin of injustice (in how our use of wealth affects other people). The coming misery of the rich is too terrible to ignore.

A second area of application needs to be made today because of the spread of liberation theology. In light of James's teaching, how far shall Christians go in opposing the evils of wealth? The church needs to be instructed and led regarding four possible levels of action for the reformation of society: intercession, proclamation, resistance and revolution. First, the church should be stirred to intercessory prayer for its society. We have a biblical calling to pray for our society (Is 62:6-7), and prayer will be James's primary focus in the conclusion to his letter (5:13-18). Second, proclamation through clear prophetic warning is certainly proper, by the example of James's own letter. One of the ministries of the church today must be the prophetic sharing of truth. The world needs the church to address personal and societal abuses of wealth with James's twin messages of encouragement toward righteousness and warning against wickedness. Third, active resistance to injustice can be practiced through civil disobedience. Christians need to be given biblical instruction in the proper motives, methods and contexts for civil disobedience, so that this alternative can be practiced in righteousness. For the fourth possible level of action--armed revolution--James does not give any support. That will become clear as James develops the next stage of his message.

Next commentary:
Instead, Be Patient

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