The Expository Files


Rust As A Witness

James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

There is a common mistake we may be tempted to make about this passage and others like it. I want to address that right up front; we don't want to get started in this passage with a distorted presumption.

To read this passage, and without much thought or study, conclude that James takes a dim view of wealth or that James has some axe to grind against rich people is not correct. Therefore, that idea is not the right starting place for a good study of this.

People may think: Now James said something about rich folks back in chapter one. He said something else about the rich in chapter two. Now here again - James must take a dim view of rich people.

Well, that's not it at all! Let's Review:

In James 1 - his point was, the rich who depend upon their riches will be humiliated.

In James 2 - nothing critical of the rich; NO, James is critical of brethren who show preference to the rich, and shun the poor.

So let's not jump to an unjustified conclusion about James and the rich. He is not upholding poverty over riches; he is not sounding an alarm about all people who have more than we have. There is no encouragement here to justify any prejudice people might have against those who have more than they have. But, there is something James is against and that God is against, and that we need to know about.

It Is This: Oppressing People, In Order To Be Rich!

We cannot just read a couple of verses or phrases out of this paragraph and accuse James of hating the rich. That's a sloppy way to handle the Word of God.

We should read the entire paragraph, think about what it says, include all relevant Biblical, contextual information, and get our hands on the point the writer is making. The point is not - rich people are all bad. The point is not to recommend perpetual poverty, as a spiritual value. The point is: It is wrong, to oppress people in order to become wealthy!!

A close look into this passage will show, James is talking about a very specific group of wealthy people. This is not about somebody's level of income; NO, it is about somebody's level of character!!

Let's use the text to put the spotlight on the kind of people James is talking about: Wealthy landowners, who were building their empires of wealth and luxury, on the backs of their workers.

It is not a sin to own land. It is not a sin to hire workers. It is not a sin to make a good profit. The sin is: Making your money and building your empire on the backs of workers; workers you oppress. Workers who become victims of the greed and fraud of the landowners.

If I may be so plain: The Fat Cats Make All The Money while the laboring people suffer. Either they don't get paid, or they are not paid a just wage. That's what James has in his sights.

James really sounds like one of the prophets here. That's certainly not a stretch since we believe he was an inspired writer; and in the New Testament - the apostles and prophets are inspired. But I see James in more of a prophet role here for two reasons: ONE - the Old Testament prophets were hard on the greedy, abusive rich. TWO - James actually predicts the punishment of these landowners. He says: their corruption would be a witness against them. The rust and corrosion of their things became a witness against their greed.

The cries of the reapers were heard by the Lord and so these corrupt rich landowners stood condemned. James wants to open everybody's eyes to what was happening, and he wanted to make it clear - This kind of wealth acquisition is corrupt, and would be punished!

Now, we need to walk across a bridge from the historic context of this passage to present application today.

We need to talk about what this means for us today. We have, in this readership, no wealthy landowners who abuse people and who perpetuate corruption. My assumption is, no such people are reading this. (People obsessed with greed and oppressing their fellows are not typical readers of EF.)

I'm relatively sure, if you have employees, you are not holding back their wages. [Now if you are - you need to be convicted by this passage, and everything else the Bible says about paying just wages, and treating people right.] But it may well be we have nobody here who fits the category of the corrupt rich in James 5. That would be my assumption.

Here's what we do with this We find the principle, and we apply it in our lives so that we never become corrupt, greedy and oppressive.

The underlying principle is: We must never advance our interests at the expense and suffering of others. Now, if you make only enough money to get by - still, you must acknowledge and live by this principle now.

If you own no land; if you have no workers - still, this demands your personal application of heart. The principle crosses through all cultures, income levels, social status and category. We must never advance our interests at the expense and suffering of others. This should be our commitment of character today.

There is a popular mentality in our society, that we cannot have any part in - - Climbing your way to the top, but walking all over people to get there!! [Note - private ownership, competition, the free market place - as a system of production - I like. But when the pursuit of wealth takes us to a place where we treat people as means to enrich ourselves and we don't care how they suffer, we have crossed the line of a just system into the corruption James exposes.]

This happens in show-business, politics, business, in religion, and wherever there are people and competition and prizes to be had. It is selfish ambition; it is greed, corruption and indifference to God and man.

It's the attitude that says, "I don't care who gets hurt . . . what happens to people under me . . . or anything about God . . . I'm getting to the top, and I'm going to stay there."

To whatever extent we may have this attitude we need to give it up. People are important. People are made in the image of God. Jesus perfectly illustrated the attitude we are to have toward people. Peter said - Honor all people, 1 Pet. 2:17. We must never adopt an attitude of indifference toward the value of people.

See, this is not just a matter of paying just wages because God says we should. Though that is certainly true. But involved is, not letting our self-interests hurt people. And I remind you, the tone in this passage is prophetic. It predicts the misery of the corrupt rich.

And it echoes the preaching of the prophets, that oppressing people is sinful, and God takes it very seriously when we abuse people.

The message to the corrupt rich of all ages may be - If inflation doesn't get you . . . if the market doesn't crash . . . if the workers don't strike, YOU ARE STILL NOT SECURE. God can end it all for you . . . and God, if He wills, can turn your fancy clothes into moth-eaten rags.

I want to conclude with PERSPECTIVE, that I hope will lead to GRATITUDE AND BETTER STEWARDSHIP.

In his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell offers some startling statistics about America's affluence:

America controls nearly 20 percent of the world's wealth. There are around six billion people in the world, and there are roughly three hundred million people in the U.S. That makes America less than 5 percent of the world's population. And this 5 percent owns a fifth of the world's wealth.

One billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred liters of water a day.

Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under age five dies of hunger, while Americans throw away 14 percent of the food we purchase.

Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than one American dollar a day.

Another 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than two American dollars a day.

More than half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenager spends nearly $150 a week.

Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while forty-nine million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day.

1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity.

Nearly one billion people in the world cannot read or sign their name.

Nearly one hundred million children are denied basic education.

By far, most of the people in the world do not own a car. One third of American families own three cars.

One in seven children worldwide (158 million) has to go to work every day just to survive. ...

Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half of the world does on all goods.

Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Zondervan, 2008), pp. 122-123

Let's thank God for what we have . . . use what we have unto Him . . . while we trust and obey Jesus Christ.


By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 16.8; August 2009