James 5:1-6 - A Ghost Story for Materialists
James issues a warning for those who prize possessions over people.
This is the sixteenth of an 18-part devotional series. Sign-up here to have these devotionals sent straight to your inbox.
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 held 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.
My wife and I always read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens the week of Christmas. Each year, upon reading Dickens’ most enduring work, we are always moved to consider the many ways we prioritize our stuff over people and God.
I believe that this passage in James reads similarly to Dickens’ famous ghost story because it feels a little bit like a ghost story itself.
Consider the first two verses where James instructs the rich to “weep and howl” for the miseries coming upon them and depicts their riches “rotting” and their garments one day being “moth-eaten.” James then immediately paints a vivid image for the rich about their future, telling them that one day all of their gold and silver will become corroded and “eat away [their] flesh like fire.” It’s far scarier than any of Dickens’ work!
Much like A Christmas Carol, James 5:1-6 is also meant to move us to consider the trappings of our materialism and the ways in which that materialism comes at a great cost to the poor. You might even say it is meant to “scare us straight.” James is calling out those who have “lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence,” telling them that this is like “fattening their hearts in a day of slaughter.” This part of James’ “ghost story" is similar to Jacob Marley’s warning to Scrooge: “I wear the chain I forged in life...I made it link by link, yard by yard.” Similarly, James warns his readers that their materialism, which causes indifference towards the poor, has eternal consequences.
In his commentary on James, Douglas Moo contextualizes this passage for us by demonstrating there really was an ever-widening gap between rich and poor in James’ day. This was largely due to an economic and legal environment where wealthy landowners could easily refuse to pay their workers fairly and commonly did so. It was a system where the poor were becoming more and more disempowered, impoverished, and overworked while the wealthy landowners were becoming richer and more powerful at their expense.
This helps us understand exactly what James is critiquing. When James says in verse 4 that the wealthy have “held back” the wages of the poor, he is speaking into a specific economic issue of his time. Interestingly, he is not merely chastising the wealthy for being uncharitable. Rather, he is condemning them for paying their workers according to the status quo when the status quo was inadequate to meet the needs of the poor.
In other words, James is accusing them of being complicit in an unjust system. He is not calling them out for a lack of mercy but for a lack of justice. To pay their workers better would not be charity, it would simply be doing what is fair and right.
But notice that James is not only pointing out the outward sins of the rich; he is also confronting their inward idol of materialism, or “laying up treasures.”
The problem isn’t that they are wealthy. Indeed, God has called some into wealth and to steward his resources well. The problem is when material wealth becomes the source of true happiness and security. That’s really what materialism is: finding contentment in the comforts of this world rather than those of God’s Kingdom.
I suggest that James’ little ghost story is particularly haunting for Americans. We make up only 3% of the world’s population but consume nearly a third of the world’s resources. Many of us live in luxury and self-indulgence while other nations pride themselves in their frugality. Many of us buy luxury items while disregarding the conditions of the workers who made them.
We find our contentment in things like owning our home and growing our bank accounts. And dare I say, that when faced with the realities of economic injustice, we want to believe it’s “just the way things are.” In our brokenness, we simply tend to care about stuff more than we do people.
I suggest the solution is to be found by looking at Christ, the one who traded away all of his comforts in order to liberate you out of your own poverty. And we can pray: Lord, save me from my materialism. Help me to be more concerned for people than I am for things. Prepare me to live for Your Kingdom and not for the kingdom I can create on my own, which I will never be able to hold onto. Amen.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Resident for Ministry to State in Washington, D.C.