World English Bible translation
5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming on you. 5:2 Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. 5:3 Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be for a testimony against you, and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up your treasure in the last days. 5:4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of those who reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Hosts. 5:5 You have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure. You have nourished your hearts as in a day of slaughter. 5:6 You have condemned, you have murdered the righteous one. He doesn't resist you.
For James, sin is a matter of the nature of the heart. Righteousness, God's law and God's mercy, come from outside of us. God is the giver of all good gifts. Let no man say he is tempted by God, for God does not tempt us. Our temptations come from the sin that is in our hearts. Arguments and disputes come from the desires that war in our flesh, leading us away from God's righteousness.
In the context of the discussion of the unity of believers, James begins this diatribe concerning the rich. The rich are corrupted. Their gold and their silver is corroded and will eat their flesh like fire. They have kept back the wages of the laborers and defrauded their fellowman and God out of what is due. They have taken their pleasures on this earth, so the glories of the next life will be denied them.
First, let us consider the background of such biblical statements. Beginning with the prophets, there is a long-standing tradition in Judaism to condemn the excesses of the rich that have gained their wealth on the backs of the poor. The Old Testament prophets reviled Israel and declared that they would pay for the mistreatment of the poor and the extravagances of the wealthy. Jesus continues this tradition by condemning the religious establishment in Jerusalem as those that seek out the best places and prefer the riches of this world to the riches that they might store up in heaven.
Also, Christianity began as a movement of the common people. There are rich men and women that are spoken of as being followers, but the leaders of the Christian movement, the Twelve and their immediate predecessors, were men of common means. There was a large contingent of Roman slaves that were among the first Gentiles to respond to the message of the Jewish Messiah. "Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
The rich, on the other hand, tended to persecute the early church. James indicates earlier in the letter that the rich were oppressing Christians, dragging them off to the courts.
But the basis of James' condemnation of the rich is not cultural or historical. James condemns the rich for the sin that is in their hearts. They have taken their pleasures in this life, ignoring the will of God. Just as the man who makes his plans in business without taking into account the plans of the Lord (the last lesson), James condemns the rich for relying on their wealth and not on God's will for their lives.
Can a rich man enter the God's kingdom? Jesus said it was next to impossible, but that nothing was impossible for God. Can a rich man live righteously before God and still accumulate wealth? James certainly presents the case against it in this lesson. But the underlying message of all of the scriptures that deal with wealth is that riches can come between us and God. Wealth has a habit of making men feel as though they need not rely on God for their security and their salvation.
If anything comes between us and God, it is sin. Whether it is greed, lust, envy or gossip - anything that causes us to rely on our own selves and not God is sin. If you have been blessed with the riches of this world, you have been given these blessings so that you may share them with those that are without. If your eye causes you to commit sin, it is better that you pluck it out. If your riches cause you to commit sin, it is better that you give them away.
Treat people justly. Pay fair wages. Give to the poor. Support the helpless. Visit the sick and the orphans. Do unto others and you would have them do unto you. Can a rich man enter the kingdom of God with his riches? Can a camel go through the eye of a needle?
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