Living Theology | James 5.1–6
Living Theology is a blog series that draws out the theological principles of each week's sermon text and thinks through how we can apply them to our personal lives. In other words, this series asks how we can live out the theology of Scripture each day.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 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. 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. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
— James 5.1–6 (NIV)
You can listen to Pastor Brian's sermon on James 5.1–6 here.
For much of the Letter of James, James sounds a lot like Jesus. The themes from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount are especially prominent in James. But in this passage, James starts sounding a lot like the prophets from the Old Testament: "Weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you! . . . You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter!" (NIV).
That's not to say that Jesus never spoke harsh words against those who opposed God and His people. But there's something about the language that James uses in these verses that is very reminiscent of the exhortations of prophetic literature. In this passage, as is the case throughout his letter, James's words offer a warning to the wicked and comfort to the righteous.
Theological Principle #1:
Material wealth does not last forever.
Jesus speaks to this principle in the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches: "Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6.19–21, CSB)
The material wealth and resources that God gives us during this life are given so that we can accomplish God's purposes for us in this life. We don't get to take them with us when this life is over. If we use them wisely, God will continue to bless us in this life and in the next. If we horde them to ourselves, we waste the opportunity God has given us to serve His Kingdom and His purposes. We become like the man Jesus spoke about in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25.14–30). We bury God's wealth in the ground so that He may as well not have given it to us in the first place.
Material wealth does not last forever. We have a responsibility to make use of the blessings God has given us for the sake of His Kingdom. We only have a limited amount of time in this life, and when it's over, whatever we haven't spent will be taken from us and given to someone else.
Theological Principle #2:
When we are oppressed, we should cry out to God for help.
James communicates this truth vividly in verse 4 when he says, "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" (NIV).
James, and much of the rest of Scripture, shows us that we are to cry out to God when we are mistreated. We are to call on Him as the one who will set things right. We, as Christians and as the church, are not to take vengeance into our own hands (Romans 12.19; Deuteronomy 32.35; Psalm 94; Isaiah 61.1–2).
But there is a subtle implication of this passage that we cannot ignore. James doesn't come out and say it explicitly, but he acts it out himself by what he says in this passage. While the church is not called to take justice into it's own hands, there are a couple things that the church is called to do, and we must not fail to do them.
First, the church is called to point out injustice. That is, in fact, the very thing that James is doing in this passage. This is another way that James's words in this passage reflect the Old Testament prophetic tradition of pointing out injustice and calling God's people to repent.
Second, the church is called to come to the aid of the oppressed. The fact that God has not given the church the role of administering justice in society (this is the role of the civil authorities that God has appointed) does not mean that the church has no duty to point out injustice in society or to come to the aid of the oppressed.
So what does this look like?
Let's consider an example. Imagine a situation similar to what James describes in this passage. Imagine a wealthy man needs some landscaping done at his home. Now, this man didn't become wealthy by paying top dollar for some fancy-shmancy company with an advertising budget and other overhead factored into their pricing. Instead, this man drives over to the local home improvement store and finds a guy hanging out looking to work for an affordable price. So the wealthy man tells this guy what he needs done and what he's willing to pay him for it. He'll pay him when the job is complete. This guy agrees and hops in the wealthy man's truck. He works hard all day and actually finishes the job an hour earlier than expected. When the wealthy man comes out to inspect the work, he informs his worker that he's just not satisfied with what he has done, so he is not going to be paying him. The worker doesn't have a written contract, and he certainly doesn't have a lawyer that can help him take the matter to court. This guy is powerless as he seeks justice for himself.
How, then, shall we apply the principle that the oppressed should cry out to God for help to this specific situation?
First of all, the first response from a Christian in this situation needs to be prayer. A Christian facing this sort of injustice should first pray for God to meet his needs in spite of his pay being withheld. Further, he should pray for guidance on how to respond to this situation. Is he motivated by vindictiveness or by a genuine desire to prevent this sort of thing from happening to someone else? By praying to God first when we face injustice, we show that we truly prioritize God's will over our own desires, and we also live out this theological principle of crying out to God for help when we are oppressed.
At the same time, turning first to God in the face of oppression and injustice does not mean ignoring the matter. In the scenario above, the church has an obligation to bring this injustice to light, not sweep it under the rug—especially if one or both parties are members of a local congregation. But the church does not take matters into its own hands. It has no more authority to go and take the money from the wealthy man than the worker would. But if this wealthy man belongs to a local congregation and that congregation becomes aware of what happened, the congregation would have an obligation to call the wealthy man to repent and to do the right thing. The congregation would even have the authority to disfellowship or disassociate with the wealthy man if he refused to repent and make it right. But the church never has the authority to take the law and justice into its own hands and take the money away from the wealthy man.
What the church can do, is offer to help meet the needs of this worker who has been cheated. The church can stand in the gap for people who are mistreated, exploited, or oppressed. This is because the church is one of the means by which God has chosen to care for the most vulnerable among us. Not only can the church support someone mistreated in this way, the church should support those in the community who are being mistreated. After all, the church is where God is interacting with the world today. We are the means by which he is caring for the weak and the vulnerable. At least, we should be...
When the people of God are mistreated, exploited, or oppressed, our first response should be to cry out to God, who truly will, one day, restore justice and set all things right.
Applying God's Truth
So how can we live out the truth of these theological principles today?
Recognize that with greater blessing comes greater responsibility. It's funny how intently and devoutly we can pray for God's blessing when we are in need. But are we just as devout and pious when we make use of those blessings? How responsible are we with the blessings that God has already given us? It would be difficult for most people in America to say honestly that God has not blessed them materially. That doesn't mean we don't still feel the need for additional resources. But before we ask God for more, how faithful have we been with what He has already given us? Make a commitment to yourself—if you're married, commit to one another—that you will spend the resources God has given you wisely before you ask him for more. Is that an intimidating commitment to make? If so, why?
Spend wisely the material resources God has given us. We must acknowledge that everything we have belongs to God. If we refuse to acknowledge this, then we are no closer to the Kingdom than the rich man in Mark 10.17–31, who walked away discouraged when Jesus told him to sell all that he had and to give it to the poor. When we come to embrace the truth that all we have belongs to God, then we can begin to use it for His purposes. Is any portion of your paycheck or income automatically deducted to fund a retirement or savings account? Do you have a similar setup for the money you give? If you've never done it before, track every dollar that you or your family spend over a month. It may surprise you not only how much you spend but also what you spend it on. Do you often spend more money than you bring in? What percentage of the money you spend goes to non-essentials like entertainment, subscriptions, gadgets, or eating out at restaurants? What percentage of your spending goes toward serving and ministering to others and advancing the gospel to those who have not yet heard? Would you want these percentages made public? They can be humbling and even embarrassing. But the same mission that drives our prayers, our worship, and our evangelism should also be driving how we use our time, our money, and our connections. And that driving mission is to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything" that Jesus has commanded us. And as we do this, He is with us, even to the end of the age.
Pray—every day—that God would meet your needs for that day. This is precisely how Jesus himself teaches his disciples to pray in Matthew 6: "Give us today our daily bread" (CSB). If you do not regularly pray this prayer from Matthew 6.9–13, try praying it every day for a month, paying special attention to what each line of this prayer is really asking. Maybe trying paraphrasing the prayer in your own words, adding the details of your own specific needs to each petition.
Tell your Christian brothers and sisters about the needs that you have. It's easy for us to try to pull things together on our own, and there's nothing wrong with taking responsibility for our family. But when we are fulfilling our responsibilities and still have needs that are unmet, we need to share them with our family. Remember how the first Christians lived together in Acts: "Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2.44–47). While this doesn't necessarily prescribe how all Christians should structure their finances at all times in all places, it illustrates the principle that one of the functions of the church is to provide for the needs of its people.
Actively look for the vulnerable and mistreated around you. Even in a society as wealthy as ours, chances are most of us cross paths with multiple people each day who are vulnerable and mistreated. Pay attention. Look out for them. Reach out to them. And when you find them, ask them how you can care for them. Ask them how you can stand with them. Remind them that they are not alone. And remind them that you care because Jesus cares. Remind them that Jesus cares so much that he gave up everything, even his own life, to bring us back to God.