Don't Be Materialistic (5:1-6)

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.

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