Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Two thousand years ago, nobody’s economy was booming. Farm practices were primitive, manufactured goods were expensive and even mining was a lot of work with a small pay-off. One of the most profitable businesses was asphalt collection on the Dead Sea where great lumps of asphalt would float to the surface of the lake and be gathered by boats, but the environment was harsh and the Dead Sea provided neither fresh water nor food. It was costly to feed and house the men that gathered the asphalt, but it was sent all over the Roman Empire to make roofs waterproof and it was widely used to make ship’s hulls more watertight. Another profitable business was copper mining East of Israel, but the miners died at a quick rate.
So, in Biblical times, you could inherit money, but it was a very rare thing to have money that wasn’t based on endangering or underpaying your own laborers. Another way of looking at it was that a large farm could produce enough food for twenty people, but two of the twenty could be rich if the other eighteen were underfed and underpaid. Very often, businesses were family operations where most of the family lived like peasants to give the patriarch of the family an opulent life.
Most people lived in what we would see as severe poverty and few grew to their full stature because of undernourishment and widespread illness. Being overweight was a status symbol.
Today, we can look at some fortunes that were made on the suffering of others. One example would be the sugar and fruit companies that turned much of Central and South America into slave labor for many decades. Other examples would be the gambling industry, the illegal drug trade, and makers of armaments who profited by encouraging war between neighboring countries.
Today, there are ways of amassing a fortune without victimizing others. You can make a profit on a factory with well-paid workers. You can run a service company where everyone has medical coverage. But the temptation is still there to value investors more than workers. When a company starts squeezing to maximize profits, it is at the expense of its employees.
Today, James has a warning to wealthy people. Remember that it is from a time where most fortunes were built on slave labor, threats of violence, and people kept at the edge of poverty. These words might not apply to all rich people now, but the greed of the wealthy is still taking a terrible toll on the less fortunate.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
James is saying that fairness and justice will come to those who have attained and maintained wealth on the backs of others. We should all take this to heart because we participate in systems that benefit from abuse of the poor. We have eaten food gathered by underpaid migrant workers, we have worn clothes made in sweatshops and owned many things produced in other countries where there were no child labor laws, no minimum wage and dangerous working conditions.
In America, we tend to think of the average Christian as white and middle class, but the average Christian in the world is much like the average person in the world: poor, poorly educated, and in a third world country without enough food, clean water, shelter, or medical care. Many of us have never had to go to bed hungry.
James is speaking as if we “rich people” should despair but think of it as a strong push towards repentance. Jesus once said, “How difficult it is for a rich man to enter heaven” but he added “all things are possible for God.” [see Matthew 19:23-26] Most people are not billionaires who spend time fighting against fair practices or pushing harmful products, but we are all rich by biblical standards and need to do compassionate works for the poor close to home and the poor far away. More than anything else, rich people, like all other sinners, need to be rescued from the debt of their sin.
There are enough resources in the world to give everyone enough to meet their basic needs, but there will never be enough to meet the desires of even a small percentage of humanity.
This is a problem that may never have a solution. Even if we could redistribute all wealth, we would soon return to a world with some who are rich and some who are poor. We have no way of making things completely fair and equal. We cannot bring back people who starved. We cannot undo thousands of years of oppression.
And what if all the rich people with good intentions gave all their money to the poor? We would be turning over all power to ruthless people or heartless corporations. What we really need is some of the super-wealthy to encourage their peers to be altruistic and charitable.
The main problem with the worst offenders, the “evil rich,” is they may fear death, but they don’t fear a debt that they would have to pay when they die. The most powerful people in the world have realized that they are not going to be hit by lightning out of a blue sky and they can swear on the Bible without it burning their hands. The most terrible thing for them is that they don’t realize that they need salvation. They don’t care that they live on the pain of others, because they despise their own victims.
But we all need to repent, and we all need to be altruistic and charitable. We all need to be thankful for what we have and show some thanks and responsibility. Of course, we all need to be rescued from our spiritual poverty by God.
And for James, the question always comes, “What are you going to do about it?”
Questions to Ponder: What was your strongest experience of poverty? When have you felt wealthy?