“If money talks,” said a popular comedian, “all it ever says to me is good-bye!”
But money was not saying “good-bye” to the men James addressed in this section of his letter. These men were rich and their riches were sinful. They were using their wealth for selfish purposes and were persecuting the poor in the process.
James sounded a warning to the rich oppressors. We can divide his exhortation into two parts:
The heavy price tag attached to misused wealth (James 5:1–3)
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days you have stored up your treasure!
Misused wealth leads to miseries! James could see those miseries coming towards his readers and described the consequences of misusing riches.
Riches will vanish (vv. 2-3a)
It is a great mistake to think there is security in wealth. Paul wrote, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches” (1 Tim. 6:17). Riches are uncertain. The money market fluctuates from hour to hour and so does the stock market. Add to this the fact that life is brief and we cannot take wealth with us, and you can see how foolish it is to live for the things of this world.
Misused riches erode character (v. 3)
“Their corrosion … will eat your flesh like fire.” This is a present judgment: the poison of wealth has infected them and they are being eaten alive.
Of itself, money is not sinful; it is neutral. But “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Abraham was a rich man, but he maintained his faith and character. When Lot became rich, it ruined his character and ultimately ruined his family. “If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them” (Ps. 62:10).
Judgment is certain (vv. 3, 5)
James not only saw a present judgment (their wealth decaying, their character eroding), but also a future judgment before God. Jesus Christ will be the Judge (James 5:9) and His judgment will be righteous.
Misused wealth will cause pain in the future. Those who make riches the primary thing in this life and live without regard to God will be keenly aware of their folly. Their memory of living for wealth when they could have lived for God will bite and burn like fire!
They will realize they have “stored up treasure in the last days.” In eternity, they will see they accumulated wealth as if they would live forever, but all the while they were living the last days of their lives. They were speeding towards eternity while they were amassing their riches.
The Day of Judgment is a serious thing. The lost will stand before Christ at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11–15). The saved will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:9–10). God will not judge our sins, because they have already been judged on the cross; but He will judge our works and our ministry. If we have been faithful in serving and glorifying Him, we will receive a reward; if we have been unfaithful, we will lose our reward but not our salvation (1 Cor. 3:1–15).
The loss of a precious opportunity (v. 3)
“The last days” indicates James believed the coming of the Lord was near (see James 5:8–9). We must “make the most of every opportunity” (Eph. 5:16) and work while it is day (John 9:4). Think of all the good that could have been accomplished with that hoarded wealth. There were poor people in that congregation who could have been helped (James 2:1–6). There were workers who deserved their wages. Sad to say, in a just few years after this letter was written the Jewish nation was defeated and scattered, and Jerusalem destroyed.
It is possible to be “poor in this world” (James 2:5) and yet rich in the next world. It is also possible to be “rich in this world” (1 Tim. 6:17) and poor in the next world. The return of Jesus Christ will make some people poor and others rich, depending on the spiritual condition of their hearts. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).
Manifestations of misused wealth (James 5:3–6)
It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.
Hoarding (v. 3)
James warns his readers they have “stored up treasure.” Hoarding takes place when we continue to accumulate above and beyond that which is necessary. What a tragedy it is to see people “store up treasures for the last days” instead of “laying up treasures in heaven.”
What did Jesus mean by “laying up treasures in heaven”? Did He mean we should “sell everything and give to the poor” as He instructed the rich young ruler? I think not. He spoke that way to the rich ruler because greed was the young man’s besetting sin and Jesus wanted to expose it. To lay up treasures in heaven means to use all we have as stewards of God’s wealth. You and I may possess many things, but we do not own them. God is the Owner of everything and we are His stewards.
The Bible does not discourage saving or even investing, but it does condemn hoarding. What we possess and use are merely things apart from the will of God. When we yield to His will and use what He gives us to serve Him, then things become treasures and we are investing in eternity. What we do on earth is recorded in heaven, and God keeps the books and pays the interest.
Depriving workers of their rightful wages (v. 4)
The Law consistently condemns fraudulent treatment of workers (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15). The rich would certainly not have been hurt by paying the wages they owed. They had plenty from which to pay! But the workers, who lived from day to day and from hand to mouth, were hurt tremendously by not getting paid.
James depicts the seriousness of the matter in terms of two cries going up to God. The first is the cry of the unpaid wages. James pictures them sitting there in the bank and crying out to God because they have not been sent to those to whom they should have gone. The second is the cry of the workers themselves. It is the cry of anguish, as they sit down with their families to eat a crust of bread or nothing at all when they could have been eating a decent meal.
Wallowing in luxury and self-indulgence (v. 5)
There is a great difference between enjoying what God has given us (1 Tim. 6:17) and living extravagantly on what we have withheld from others. Even if what we have has been earned lawfully and in the will of God, we must not waste it on selfish living. There are too many needs to be met.
Luxury has a way of ruining character. It is a form of self-indulgence. If you match self-indulgence with wealth the result is sin; but if you match character with wealth, you can produce much good. The rich man Jesus described in Luke 16:19–31 would have felt right at home with the rich men James wrote to!
Murdering the innocent (v. 6)
We are not to picture any of James’s readers going out with swords to hack people to death. James has something far more subtle in mind—but just as deadly! James is referring to judicial “murder”—primarily referring to taking away the means of making a living.
The rich controlled the courts. “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?” (James 2:6). The poor could not oppose them because they had no way to use the system and thus were helpless.
James’ words about murdering the just who do not resist make us think about the Lord Jesus Christ. Although He was just in every way, He was murdered. Although He certainly had the power to resist, He did not. He willingly submitted to unjust treatment, so He could provide eternal salvation for sinners.
Yes, money talks. What will it say to us at the last judgment?
To Think About and Discuss:
- What are some of the indications that people have become obsessed with material things in the world around us? in the church?