The Expository Files


Corrupt Wealth Acquisition

James 5:1-8

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” (Jas. 5:1-6 ESV)

There is a common mistake we may be tempted to make about passages like this. Let’s deal with that first.

An ill-advised impulse about this passage is: to think that James takes a dim view of wealth, or that he has some grudge against rich people. That isn’t so, therefore is the wrong starting place to study this passage.

But there is something James writes against and most importantly, that God is against: oppressing people to become rich! The point is not that rich people are all bad. The point is not to recommend that perpetual poverty is a higher spiritual plane. The point is, how wrong it is to oppress people in order to become wealthy.

Look through the text and put the spotlight on the kind of people James is talking about. There were 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, to hold property, to hire workers, to make a profit and grow a good business. The sin is in making your money and building your empire on the backs of workers you oppress.

In the time of James, workers were often oppressed and became de facto victims and slaves under the greedy landowners. The “Fat Cats” were making money while the laboring people were suffering. Either the workers didn’t get paid at all, or they were not paid a just wage. That’s what James has in his sights.

In issuing this condemnation James echoes what the prophets said. They were bold in their exposure of the greedy, abusive rich (Isa. 1:17; 10:1-4; Ezek 45:9). The cries of the reapers were heard by the Lord, so these corrupt rich landowners stood condemned in the previous dispensation, in the time of the apostles and today. 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 will be punished!

What should all this mean to us? You probably do not classify yourself as a wealthy landowner. There is an underlying principle we need to get: We must never advance our interests at the expense andsuffering of others.

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! 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. Along with that, we must determine to not let 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. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Matt. 6:21).

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” Jer. 9:23,24

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 16.2; February 2009