When It’s Bad to be Rich (James 5:1-6)
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When it’s Bad to be Rich
The court case against the oppressive rich–James 5:1-6
Money is a tool or a trap. Wealth is a blessing or a blister. Being rich is delightful, but it can also be a disaster. When someone is wealthy, they can be generous, giving, and godly with their money, or they can be damaging, deadly and depraved with their money. And now in James 5, the half-brother of the Lord teaches some terrible truth to those who would misuse their wealth. James talks here to the rotten rich, the wicked wealthy, the malevolent monied. They are running with the big dogs.
In verses 1 to 6, James addresses oppressive landowners, then in verses 7 to 11 James teaches the oppressed who worked their land. Verses 1 to 6 the oppressive, wicked wealthy and verses 7 to 11 the oppressed poor. And the shocker, the kicker–both groups are in the churches which James writes. In his letter, James has already made mention of the rich.
Remember back in James 1:10, the rich should glory in their humiliation cause they will pass away like grass in a scorching wind? Then in James 2:5 to 6, the congregation should not play favorites toward the rich, since they are the ones who tend to persecute Christians. Then speaking about God’s will in 4:13, James makes reference to those who will go to another city and make a killing financially, then return and boast about it.
After all that, you might think that James has an attitude against the rich? N0–but back then as well as today, there are specific temptations only the rich face and there are certain abuses only the rich can dish out. And in the churches James writes, there were some wealthy claiming to be saved, who were dishing out abuses. God in His Word repeatedly warns that a person’s financial wealth (or lack of wealth) does not determine your relationship with the Lord. Whether rich or poor, you must humble yourself before the Lord and cry out for salvation. Only when you’ve been internally, spiritually born again, are you right with God. So true salvation has nothing to do with your abundance of wealth or lack of money.
The New Testament is really clear–you are not automatically evil when you’re wealthy. But if you are wealthy and in Christ, the Lord teaches in 1 Timothy 6:17 to 19, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 18Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” James will not condemn those with resources just for being wealthy. But James does condemn them for misusing their resources.
But unlike the believing rich in Timothy’s congregation, many of the rich in James are the wicked wealthy who are professing faith in Christ and are connected to a church, but their real god is money, things, profit, gain, greed–not Christ. There is a big difference between the financially rich and poor, but there is even more of a difference between the spiritually rich and poor. Take a look at the chart in your outline.
For prostituting the gracious goodness and generosity of God, these churchgoing, but not saved wealthy, can only anticipate divine punishment. Read what James writes in verses 1 to 6. Do not let these words burn you as you read them aloud with me. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. 3Your 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 that you have stored up your treasure! 4Behold, 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 of Sabaoth. 5You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:1 to 6).
What is going on here? These selfish rich gained more wealth through injustice. These are oppressive farmers who attended church, but were not saved. And these wicked wealthy took advantage of the day laborers who worked their fields. The Bible teaches in 1 Timothy 5:8 and elsewhere, the laborer is worthy of his wages. Part of the reason for that is, the day laborer in Palestine lived on the verge of starvation. His wage was small–it was impossible for him to save anything. And if the wage was withheld from him, even for a day, he and his family simply could not eat.
As they say in Texas, they are so poor, their Sunday dinner is fried water. This is why there are so many compassionate and merciful laws in the Old Testament, insisting on the fair and prompt payment of the hired laborer–look at just two. Deuteronomy 24:14 and 15, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, … 15You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you.” Jeremiah 22:13, “Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay. And does not give him his wages.”
The wicked wealthy of James 5:1 to 6 are oppressing the poor in this manner. Next week, James 5:7 to 11, the half-brother of Christ will teach those who are being oppressed in this manner. It is a powerful passage next week. Verses 1 to 6, the oppressors, and verses 7 to 11, the oppressed. You and I need this passage, because you and I are the wealthy. And what we do to gain our wealth, use it, invest it, or give it, really matters to the Lord.
Heed the warning of 2 Timothy 3:1 and 2, “Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money . . .” Remember Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:7 to 10, “For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 8If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. 9But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
What do we do? We spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t want, to impress people we don’t like. Jesus tells us we should be different than everyone else in Luke 12:33, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” We should not be like the Pharisees, Luke 16:14, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money.”
And we should heed the warning of Hebrews 13:5, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.” Many who temporarily live in luxury in this life will suffer greatly forever in the next. Many of those who suffer greatly in this life will live in luxury in the next. Only those who live for Christ in this life, with their money will have joy in this life and reward in the next. The unsaved, churchgoing wealthy were being cruel/indifferent to poor believers. So James points them to their certain coming judgment, while reminding all of us who have more than enough food, clothing and shelter to use our wealth carefully.
#1 The Hoarding of the Rich and Powerful Pays Painful DIVIDENDS Verses 1 to 3
If you look into the face of the unsaved wealthy today, more often than not you’ll see stress, worry, bitterness, and emptiness. Wealthy people quickly discover that money can’t purchase happiness–but in fact, often brings despair. Again, being rich is not a sin. James is not saying the poor go to Heaven and the rich go to Hell. But what the wealthy do with their riches and the influence that brings can result in great sin. So James declares the coming judgment against the wealthy for any abuse with their moneymaking in verse 1. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.”
James starts with, “come now”. This is a command for attention–you’d say “Listen up!” or “Get this!” or “Pay attention!” James used the same “come now” back in 4:13 when he talked about these rich who went to another city, made a profit, and boasted about it without acknowledging their dependence on the Lord nor God’s will. Then James adds a second command, to weep, then an ongoing howling to weep is to sob out loud, like when someone dies. This weeping is often associated with shame, guilt and sorrow–the same kind of weeping that might come from true repentance. Weep over your sin.
The “howl” used only here in the New Testament is onomatopoetic–it means what it sounds like, and it sounds like screaming, outbursts of despairing grief. So why should the rotten rich cry and groan? Verse 1 gives the reason for your miseries which are coming upon you. “Miseries” describes overwhelming hardship, trouble, and distress. Overwhelming suffering will be visited upon the wicked wealthy when they stand before the Lord in judgment. How bad will it be? James gives a description of the coming judgment which will fall upon the lecherous loaded in verses 2 to 3. “Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. 3Your 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 that you have stored up your treasure” (James 5:2 to 3).
James points out the folly of hoarding food, expensive clothing, or money–all of which is subject to decay, theft, fire, or other forms of loss. In those days, a person could display his or her wealth in three ways—1) by feasting lavishly/food, 2) by dressing extravagantly, and 3) by spending wildly. (Some things never change!) James targets the three evidences of the flamboyant lifestyle of the rich, to point out how foolish it is to center your life on these things.
Through time and disuse, food goes bad even when stored in barns, garments get eaten by moths, and precious metals can tarnish and if mixed as an alloy, rust. Verse 2, “Your riches have rotted.” Rotted was used in extrabiblical Greek to describe rotten wood, decayed flesh, and spoiled fruit. James indicts the wicked rich for uselessly hoarding meat or grains or fruit, because they will inevitably rot. Like the rich fool in the Lord’s parable in Luke 12, who wants to build bigger barns, believed his hoarded food would allow him to “take his ease, eat, drink and be merry” for years to come. But in the end, he’d die and his hoard would only rot and be of no use to anyone.
Verse 2 adds, “and your garments have become moth-eaten.” Garments describes outer garments, like robes or cloaks, which were often richly embroidered and embellished with jewels. This type of garments displayed your wealth. But hoarding them was as foolish as hoarding food, since such garments were in danger of becoming worn out and moth-eaten.
Verse 3 adds, “Your gold and your silver have rusted.” James may be describing the coinage of his day that contained alloys and would rust over time. Or James may have been speaking figuratively, declaring that in the day of God’s judgment, gold and silver will be as useless as if they were rusted. By hoarding rather than sharing, the wealth of the rich rots, deteriorates and rusts.
And all that hoarding is a witness against the rotten rich who are headed toward judgement. In the coming judgment, all their hoarded, rotted, moth-eaten, corroded treasures will give graphic testimony of the unregenerate state of their hearts. Their covetous, selfish, compassionless, earthbound approach to life will result in their condemnation. In fact, not only does James portray rust as witness, but also as an executioner. Verse 3, it will consume the flesh of the wicked rich like fire. And fire points to the inescapable, fatal, and final judgment of the wicked rich–a vivid picture of Hell with a fire that consumes the flesh, which describes a place of physical torment.
One of the most fearful realities in all of Scripture is the truth that Hell is a place of conscious, bodily, eternal punishment. Verse 3, those “in the last days”, which is our day–the time between Christ’s two comings, who hoard their treasure instead of giving a fair wage to workers. Instead of using wealth for God’s purposes, as they store up/hoard treasure, they’re actually storing up judgment upon themselves.
The verb choices James uses are powerful here–the food rots and remains rotten, the clothes are moth-eaten and remain a mess, and coins rusted and can’t be cleaned. Judgment is guaranteed. Great money cannot rescue you from Hell–only Christ can. James teaches a day is coming when the true accountant will conduct His audit. On that day, the wicked wealthy will be handed a bill they cannot pay, and all their earthly treasures will be like ashes blowing in the wind. Only God’s righteousness, the free gift that comes by faith in Jesus Christ, can rescue you on the day of judgment.
#2 The Unjust Actions of the Rich and Powerful Will Not Go Unpunished Verse 4
James now delineates the charges against the oppressive affluent. The wicked rich were not only guilty of sinfully hoarding their wealth–they had also sinfully acquired it. Far from being generous to the poor as Scripture commands, they exploited the poor. Verse 4, “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 of Sabaoth.” These rotten rich had withheld the pay of the laborers who mowed their fields–a practice so shocking, James introduces the statement with the striking word, “behold”. The tense of the verb “withheld” points to not only a delay in payment, but they completely withheld part or all of the pay they owed. The rich cheated them.
James says the painful cries of the robbed, defrauded laborers has reached the ears of God–and they will echo there until the Lord acts in righteous judgment. The title, “Lord of Sabaoth” means Lord of the armies or Lord of hosts. It refers to God as the Judge who wages war against His enemies. And James affirms that this judge hears the cries of those defrauded laborers.
One sign of the selfish rich is their reluctance to pay their bills. Christians pay their bills. Do you remember when the world was in financial crisis in 2008, and numerous superrich rewarded themselves with bonuses and raises, while their employees lost their jobs? One shocking reality is that some of the greediest people are also some of the wealthiest–and some of the most generous people are so poor they’d give away their last dollar. A frightening judgment awaits those who unjustly hoard the wealth–they rob from the poor. Their victims will cry out for justice to the righteous Judge, and He hears and answers their anguish. There is payback.
#3 The SELFISH Lifestyle of the Rich and Powerful only Stores up PUNISHMENT Verse 5
James now rebukes the cruel cash crowd because they’ve used their wealth selfishly. Verse 5, “You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” The wealthy wicked live in the lap of luxury, indulging in pleasures and fattening not just their bellies, but James paints a picture of a person trying to satisfy the deepest longings of his heart with a self-indulgent lifestyle. Like a pig fattened for slaughter, these wealthy selfishly gorge on the pleasures of life.
But as they do, they are eating and drinking judgment upon themselves. After robbing their day laborers to accumulate more wealth, the rich take those ill-gotten profits and indulge themselves with extravagance. Notice the word “luxury” in verse 5. That always leads to sin when a person becomes consumed with the pursuit of pleasure—why? A life without self-denial soon becomes out of control in every area.
“Luxury” is only used here in the New Testament with the basic meaning of softness. James is condemning the wicked rich for living in soft, extravagant luxury at the expense of others. Far from being first-century Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to the poor–they stole from the poor, only to line their own rich pockets. The Greek word pleasure in verse 5 means to live in lewdness and lasciviousness. The selfish rich are condemned because they use their wealth to gratify their own love of soft comfort, and to satisfy their own lewd lusts and live a perverted lifestyle–all at the expense of their day laborers who they go to church with.
And these rich that James condemns had indulged themselves to the limit. And to make his point, James uses a familiar image. At key celebrations, a goat, calf or cow is fed and fattened for weeks so it can then be the centerpiece of a giant family meal. I remember in Israel asking, “Why is that goat hooked to a pole near a construction site and why does it always have lots of food to eat?” Answer, “That’s the meal the workers will eat when the building is completed.” (We didn’t adopt the goat as a pet.)
James uses this as a vivid description of divine judgement. As the wicked rich hoard, and cheat others, these rich are fattening themselves up to be the centerpiece at the Lord’s coming judgement. Remember–you are also wealthy. Those with money frequently close their eyes to the needs of others and the work of God. The rich can often live solely to gratify their own selfish desires. Apart from faith in Christ, they face eternal loss.
#4 The ABUSE of the Believing by the Rich and Powerful will not be FORGOTTEN by the Judge Verse 6
“You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.” Wow–condemned, then murdered! This is the final progression in the downward spiral of the wicked wealthy. Having unjustly hoarded the money they robbed from their poor day laborer, then spent it on their self-indulgent desires–they now take a step further to condemn and put to death the righteous man. Their heart of overindulgence consumes these rich to the point they will do anything to sustain their lifestyle.
Do you remember what James said in James 2:6? “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?” Echoing that charge, James now takes his rebuke to the highest level. The rich are guilty of judging and putting to death the “righteous”. Who is that? James might be referring to the ultimate righteous one–the Lord Jesus Christ who didn’t resist, but was put to death for the sins of His chosen.
Think about it–in Acts 3:14 Peter charged his people with, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you.” Isaiah 53 tells us the suffering servant of the Lord offered no resistance. “He opened not his mouth and like a sheep before his shearers he was dumb.” James might be saying that by oppressing the poor, the selfish rich have crucified Christ again. Every wound that selfishness inflicts on Christ’s people is another wound inflicted on Christ.
But James is most likely describing believers, those made righteous, who seek to live righteous. James rebukes the rich because they’re guilty of taking advantage of the righteous, who don’t resist them, to the point where they were taking them to court. And as a result condemning them to death–either through the courts leading to their own starvation, or accusing them of some criminal offense. The Greek word “condemned” means to pass sentence upon or to condemn in court. The implication is that the rich were using the courts to commit judicial murder.
So the rancid rich are literally killing to maintain their opulent lifestyle. The Greek verb translated put to death is translated murder in every New Testament appearance. The implication is the rank rich were using the courts to judicially murder some of the abused poor-like, saying in court, “I don’t have to pay them because they didn’t do the job.” God created the courts to fairly and impartially dispense justice. Judges were not to be greedy, show partiality, or accept bribes. But the prophets remind us this was not always the case, even in Israel. Amos 5:12, “For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, you who distress the righteous and accept bribes and turn aside the poor in the gate.”
So the believer pursuing Christ is seen here as someone who lives morally upright. And James makes it clear these victims of the rich oppressors were innocent of any crime or wrongdoing. Yet entrusting themselves to the Lord, they did not resist arrest as they were hauled into court by the wicked wealthy, cheating them out of their just wages. Believers trust in God’s providence, even with unjust courts.
This can sound so discouraging, until you remember that God is the one who allows these trials. This life is not the end, and only those made righteous have a bright future. Many who temporarily live in luxury in this life will suffer greatly forever in the next. Many of those who suffer greatly in this life will live in luxury in the next. Only those who are in Christ and use their wealth for Christ have a great future.
For all who are wealthy, you have enough clothes, food and shelter.
A What are some basic biblical COMMITMENTS with wealth?
You are to provide for your family’s needs, 1 Timothy 5:8. “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Provision involves budgeting, saving, paying bills, etc.
You are to faithfully give to your church, 1 Corinthians 16:2. “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper.”
A man inherited millions, but had a weak heart–so his wife asked one of the pastors to break the news to him so he wouldn’t have a heart attack. The pastor agreed and came to the man and wisely asked, “Bob, what would you do if you inherited millions of dollars?” Bob said to the elder, I’d give half of it to the church.” Right then the pastor died of a heart attack.
Giving involves consistent faithfulness, regular sacrifice–just when you have extra. It’s a part of your worship, and meeting the needs of others, and more.
You are to do good, be rich in works, grow generous and be ready to share, 1 Timothy 6:17 to 19. “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 18Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”
God blesses us for the purpose of blessing others, not for the purpose of satisfying our own self-centered pleasures. Our budgeting should set aside funds that anticipate special gifts, caring for a need, supporting others in the work of Christ, encouraging the saints in difficult circumstances, and more. Become a worshipful wealthy, not a wicked wealthy–become generous, not greedy.
B Money exposes your HEART for the Lord
Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Guaranteed, the money you earn, the money you have, and the money you spend, and the money you give is one of the clearest indicators of whether you live for Christ or yourself. Are you more concerned with the things of this world or the things of God? Where your money goes–that is where your heart shows.
C LUXURY today does not mean luxury tomorrow–lack of JUDGMENT today does not mean lack of judgment tomorrow
Throughout this passage, James holds the warning of the end-times final judgment over the heads of the wicked rich. Anyone who dies rejecting Christ will face judgment, but if the consequences of sin don’t happen dramatically in this life, that does not mean their future judgment before God will be just as easy–just the opposite. Their future judgement is certain. Though it may appear that the wicked get away with prospering at the expense of others for a season–in the end, their wicked deeds will be remembered.
Your wealth, your lawyers, your position today cannot rescue you from Hell. Proverbs 11:4 says, “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.” James says a day is coming when the true accountant will conduct His audit. On that day, the unsaved rich will be handed a bill they cannot pay, and all their earthly treasures will mean nothing. Only God’s righteousness, only the free gift of salvation that comes by faith in Jesus Christ can rescue any one of you on the day of judgment. Let’s pray.
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