James 5:1-6 ESV
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 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. 4 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. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
Chapter five brings a warning to the rich. Would you agree that such warnings typically bring a certain amount of concern to us? Whenever I see warnings pertaining to wealth, a question naturally arises. The question typically sounds like this, “Is the possession of all wealth a sin?”
Let’s face the facts, wealth is something most people strive toward. People want money, and the things it can buy. Power and wealth have been key motivators in mankind for a really long time. We want comfort, extravagance, and the ability to do anything we want. Money can certainly buy a lifestyle that looks very pleasing and desirable to us. I think if we would all be honest, we would admit there is a desire to have more wealth. I think these money-filled desires leave us hopeful that the Bible is not condemning wealth in and of itself.
Of course, just in the brief comments already made, we see the potential problem wealth, or the lust for it, creates. The writings of James teaches us many of the same principles found throughout Scripture. James mirrors the teaching of Christ, and complements the writings of the Apostle Paul. If we are doers of the Word, then we should see characteristics within ourselves that resemble humility, kindness, love, and let’s not forget the ability to fully trust in God. Many of these things are absent if we are fully trusting in wealth.
To answer my own question, “No, the mere possession of wealth is not a sin.” Working hard to provide for one’s family is not a sin. Saving some funds for retirement years, is obviously, not a sin. Inheriting a large fortune is not a sin, but greed, selfishness, fraud, and the oppression of others is very much sin. The love of anything over our love for God, and our love for our fellow man, is a problem. The great commandment is, “Love God and love others.” Loving money is not a part of it.
To stay in the specific context of the writings, James seems to be addressing a specific situation occuring in his time, and is still occuring today in ours. Apparently there were wealthy landowners who were taking advantage of those less fortunate. It seems as though they were abusing people by having them work their fields, and then withholding their wages. This oppression of the poor is not only a violation of the Law of Moses, it also contradicts the teaching of the New Testament. And yes, this still goes on everywhere in the world.
James offers severe condemnation for those wealthy landowners. As a matter of fact, his words are so harsh, many believe he is not addressing people within the church, but rather those outside the church who are oppressing his fellow believers. Some commentators suggest James’ warnings for these wealthy and corrupt landowners serve as more of a comfort to the victims in the church, rather than a persuasion for them to change. After all, God holds the monopoly on issuing justice.
As I dive into this last chapter of James, I’m reminded that money can be a powerful and driving force. The lust for wealth, and all it brings, can consume a person to the point that they truly become rotten. The Word of God teaches us to be givers, and not takers.