4. Judgments Against the Rich (5:1–6)

Of all the New Testament passages about the sins of the rich, Jas 5:1–6 stands out. One would have to go to the Old Testament prophets’ condemnations for comparable judgments against the wealthy among the people of God (e.g., Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Habakkuk, Zephaniah). How could Christians have fallen into such a state? But James already had shown how friendship with the world is a constant temptation for believers who do not resist the deeper temptation of envy. Envy creates its own worldview by which a person will justify any action in order to secure more wealth. The worldview created by envy will rationalize the evil consequences of any act in view of selfish interest. The picture here is horrific and cannot be regarded as merely a warning. Although James made no declaration about the hopelessness of the unjust rich, he offered no hope either. They were committed to their evil ways, and God had committed himself to oppose them.

(1) The Misery of Hoarding (5:1–3)

1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your 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.

5:1 James returned to the sins of the rich once more (cf. 1:10–11; 2:3–6). As in 4:13, “Now listen” (or “Come now!”) establishes the sharp confrontational address James intended. At the outset this verse declares the fact of the future condemnation of the wicked rich. The verses that follow will lay out the crimes that stand against them. James displayed rage against the rich because of their outrageous acts against the poor. Only certain passages in the Gospels anticipate the kind of condemnations leveled here against the rich (e.g., Matt 19:23–24; Mark 10:25; Luke 1:53; 6:24; 16:19–31; 21:1–4). What James said is much harsher than the classic warning of 1 Tim 6:10 against the love of money.

The prophecy of 2 Tim 3:15 does warn of “terrible days” to come in which people will fall into gross wickedness of every kind, including the love of money, “having the form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” This warning is close to James, who addresses them now simply as “O rich ones” (hoi plousioi) rather than “brothers.” Whatever appearance these people had that suggested Christian faith, their actions were so worldly and so destructive that the truth about them could only produce righteous indignation. Like Paul and John, James was willing to speak to believers as if they were not believers, for their actions toward their brothers contradicted their own faith (cf. vv. 4–6). The declaration of judgment is real. But what does this declaration mean if James still regarded them as believers, though compromised? Were they in danger of missing salvation? No. But real believers do not act in the ways listed below.

The call for them to “weep and wail” uses the language of humbling oneself found in 4:9. Sinners who have heard the prophetic word of judgment should mourn and weep over their sin now instead of waiting for the judgment that will afflict them with greater weeping. Then instead of self-induced sorrow, the sorrows of judgment will be inflicted upon them. The former weeping is performed by the believer who lives in faithful relation to God. In spite of sin this believer can hear the Word of God and respond positively.

In this section grievous sins against poor laborers are recounted. In the economy of God, those oppressors who caused such abuse would be judged. Yet these oppressors were exhorted to weep, here also, prior to judgment. Is this a third type of weeping? Does this call to weep mean that the possibility of repentance is hidden within the declaration of impending judgment? It is difficult to say. Miseries (wretchedness, distress, trouble, much worse than the disregarded and ill-treated poor experience in this life) are coming for these unrepentant sinners. Do they claim to have faith in God? This prophetic word will prove that faith or lack of it. For those lacking faith that comes from humility toward God, this revelation of God’s will includes the foretelling of their judgment. If there is faith, there is yet time, though a very short time from James’s perspective, for some to repent and do the works of true faith.

5:2 The truth about greed and selfish hoarding of wealth is presented in this verse. James earlier illustrated the perishability of wealth with the simile of the wildflower quickly scorched by the desert sun (1:10–11). Here James turned to the degrading influence wealth has for all who place their confidence in it rather than God. The wealth of these rich believers is vividly portrayed as having rotted and their clothing as having become moth-eaten. It was not so much that the treasures themselves were in this condition but that the manner in which believers were holding them already evidenced decay. The one who has known God and experienced the eternal realities of the spiritual world can sense in the opulent treasures of this world the underlying corruption. In the world a characteristic value of treasures is their relative durability, but James warned his audience of the falsity of this notion. The end of each life and the final judgment show that the person and the possessions are not durable. Trusting in wealth because it supposedly “retains its value” is trusting in a charade. The rituals of amassing wealth and curating precious objects are really a dance of death. Trusting in wealth is then a damaging and degrading attitude. Speaking with the voice of a prophet, James proclaimed the nearness of judgment from the signs of corruption already in evidence.

The deceptiveness of riches is dangerous for the soul because it will endanger so many others. Is there a connection between the “fine clothes” of the rich in 2:2 and the moth-eaten clothes of this verse? All of the wealthy believers need to take heed from this verse and then to see how each of them have treated those who are in their employ or any to whom they owe just wages (cf. 5:4). All wealth is perishable; none of it will survive the judgment; when wealth is the result of withholding wages, its perishability is a warning of its hoarders’ destruction. James had already seen the connection and was warning rich believers in the harshest way.

5:3 In the judgment, gold and silver will become tarnished or “corroded” (katioō, another perfect tense here vividly describing the future as a present reality). Commonly used metals such as iron or bronze corrode; and when they do, they are no longer useful, as in the case of cooking utensils. James prophesied that gold and silver will lose their value as investments because what is impossible—their corrosion—will come to pass; God’s judgment will make it a reality.

Gold and silver would corrode precisely because the rich oppressors valued them for not corroding. God’s judgment would physically empty them of value. God would use their most precious investments against the wealthy. Rather than acting justly with their wealth to secure the well-being of their laborers and their families, they had invested it in “frozen” assets that would nevertheless burn in the judgment to come. Is it possible that the phrase “testimony against you” could contain any hope of repentance and salvation? The rich who had been dragging believers into court (2:6) were the ones who would appear in the court of the Lord. The “corrosion” (ios, “rust,” translated “poison” in 3:8 and Rom 3:13) on their hoarded gold and silver would be made to “testify” against the rich oppressors in James’s version of a covenant lawsuit. The rust is personified. The rich had willfully refused to listen to the voice of justice calling for fair wages; now the rust was given a voice declaring their guilt. Thus, instead of paying wages, the gold and silver would be paid to the rust. The hoarded wealth would help pay for the trial against them. Again, there was hope for repentance because the judgment was not yet here; nevertheless, to borrow a metaphor from the testimony of John the Baptist, “The ax is already at the root of the trees … ” (cf. Luke 3:9).

The personified rust is active in another way. Having ruined the hoarded gold and silver (perhaps even consuming the metals entirely as rust eventually does), the rust continues its destruction by turning upon the wealthy themselves in the day of judgment. The rust is transformed from a witness of guilt into an instrument of wrath. Having acquired a voice, the rust also acquires a mouth by which to “consume” the bodies of the unjust rich. In the same way that fire can be personified and said to “eat” what it burns up, the rust or poison will “eat” their flesh. In the natural world rust only degrades common metals. But God’s judgment on the unjust rich consumes not only the wealth they trusted to buy security but also the rich themselves. The power of speech is great because it is always connected with activities that control the course of life, sometimes in hellish fashion (cf. 3:6, 15). The misery of divine judgment is said to be brought about indirectly by a natural force—rust—radically intensified by God's power. Since these precious metals had been utilized in a way inappropriate to them, hoarding as a source of security rather than paid out in just wages or in alms, their “rust” would be conferred with extraordinary power to destroy as a metaphor for hell. If death cannot hold the dead who are to arise to blessedness, no vault can hold the money or the lives of those who have trusted in their wealth rather than God. At the resurrection such ones will break out and will be cast into the place of punishment.

As it turns out, this passage is essentially eschatological. There is a possible connection here with the rich fool of Luke 12:13–21 who “stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (v. 21). This one had imagined that his life was about securing his own well-being only and not creating a flourishing environment about him in which the well-being of others and the praise of God was evident. The Lukan parable concerns personal eschatology— this man’s appointment with death (cf. Jas 1:11); it does not carry the same prophetic charge that James’s passage does. Indeed, even the figurative use of storing up “treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20) meant for Luke the performing of present godly actions in view of the eschatological reward of heaven. There was for James, perhaps, also the scandal of stored wealth in the end times. James charged, “You have hoarded wealth in the last days,” likely referring to the eschatological testimony of the rust against the wealthy who were quite literally hoarding wealth, something no believer in God should do. Wealth was then robbed of its usefulness in paying the wages of the laborers. The prophets of the Old Testament repeatedly denounced the wealthy in their selfishness and self-deceiving belief in the security of riches. In the New Testament the same indictment is transformed in view of God’s readiness to bring an end to the present world system; thus these are “the last days.” The indictment of hoarding wealth has a reliable witness, the rust that turned to consume this wealth. Why should it not continue its consuming activity upon the guilty? They had hoarded wealth in the last days, and now they had been warned, for in the economy of God this wealth had contracted a corrosive infestation that would destroy both it and its holders.

(2) The Misery of the Innocent (5:4–6)

4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.

5:4 With the imperative “Look!” (cf. 3:4–5; 5:7, 9, 11), James directed the attention of the unjust rich to evidence against them here and now. If somehow the eschatological outlook of the previous verse was veiled, it is very apparent in the case of those who worked for the wealthy and went unpaid. This economic oppression was particularly urgent because many of the field laborers of the ancient world were transients (as they are today) and often were in need of special compassion because of their foreign status. The wages that were due, however, never passed out of the vault of the wealthy. The biblical view of economic justice holds here: “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Lev 19:13). In this biblical view profits and benefits to the property owners beyond their own basic livelihood were secondary to the necessary wages of persons who labored for them. Instead of heeding the Old Testament call to “act justly” (Mic 6:8), the wealthy had kept (apostereō, lit. “stolen”) the wages that were due these workers. Holders of great wealth can speak cavalierly about deferred payments, their “need” to wait for another increment of interest, or alternative “compensations”; but for those whose very survival depends on receiving their wages at day’s end, such financial plans are no solution.

Now, just as the personified rust on precious metals had a voice and a say, the wages have a voice as well. The wages utter their cry of accusation against the unjust rich. The laborers who had mowed the fields of grain for rich landowners had wages in the vaults of the wealthy, but the first cry of complaint was by the wages themselves. The field work had been done, but the work of properly managing wages was not done. It is as if the wages had begun crying: “You are holding us against our will; we belong to others!” The picture here is of precious goods that have been hidden away but which will join in the list of witnesses against the unjust rich in the judgment. In a world of work, the wages were disallowed from performing their “labor” of buying bread for the needy laborers. In a world of the unjust rich, any believers among them—indeed all of them—should hear the words of James that are much like that of the prophet Malachi:

“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud [the same verb, apostereō, used by James] laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3:5)

That withholding wages is a sin is hardly astonishing, but that it is listed among the worst of those known to Israel and is now condemned so harshly in the New Testament may be surprising to economically comfortable Christians.

The cries increase—now the voices of the harvesters themselves are heard. The wages were crying out, so to speak, in frustration. Now the voices of agony were raised by those who had cut and gathered the grain during the long, hot day. This sound was the cry that the Lord hears. Like that of Abel’s blood (Gen 4:10) and of the oppressed Israelites in Egypt (Exod 2:23), it is a cry of distress and suffering. Perhaps the wealthy had not heard these cries, but the Lord had heard them. Or perhaps the rich had discounted their workers’ cries, but to the Lord those cries touched his heart and moved him to action.

God had heard, that is, he knew all of this tragic situation, both the suffering and who had caused it. God, the Lord “Sabaoth” —a title most reminiscent of Old Testament devotion, is best translated “Lord of the Armies.” In the life of Israel, this address characterized God as the one who moves to deliver his people. Now this Lord and his forces will come to defend the oppressed among his people on the last day.

In the modern world much wealth is amassed by profit from interest, as well as by finding ways to control the value of real property. There are clear benefits to a society from the investment of wealth that creates new wealth. But the rich must exercise personal frugality. They must further exercise the greatest of care, for this type of business creates two great problems. (1) Those who do business outside of the direct relations between proprietor and average worker lose their connection to the ethics of maintaining decent wages. (2) Those who do business largely based upon deferred payment lose the sense of urgency relative to the well-being of wage-earning people. Within the circle of the Christian community, a clear voice must constantly call the wealthy to greater responsibility for the well-being of the average laborer. The skills necessary to create wealth, powerful as they are, must be guided by Christian wisdom. Likewise, ministers who labor among all the people of God must maintain their independence from undue influence by any group in order to foster responsible relationships among all. The goal of long-term economic culture shaped by biblical principles is a community shaped by real colaboring in Christ.

5:5 James’s third indictment was against the heartlessness of the rich. Their callousness was rooted in their self-centered pleasure and luxury at the expense of their laborers. Self-indulgence, reveling in earthly pleasures, was universally condemned by all the sages of the ancient world. Its offensiveness here stems not only from the unseemliness of self-indulgence but more from the indifference to others’ needs and sufferings that a life of pleasure always entails. Living luxuriously was regarded by the ancient moralists as a source of moral laxity and indecision in precisely those situations in which ethical firmness is required. All Christians are to resist revelry and to move out from a satisfied life to encounter the lives of those who barely survive so that they too might achieve a level of well-being.

All of this self-directedness, overindulgence of the appetites, and pleasure taking amounts to special preparations for destruction. These wealthy ones had fattened themselves (lit. their “hearts”; cf. 1:26; 3:14; 4:8; 5:8) for the slaughter. The concept that the judgment will be like a great slaughtering of animals is a frequent Old Testament apocalyptic image (Isa 34:2; 65:12; Jer 15:3; 19:6; 32:34; Zech 11:4). Indeed, the oppressive rich, like senseless sheep, will be slaughtered. Whether the sheep was slaughtered for a meal or for sacrifice, the best was sought out and overfed in order to make the meal that much larger and richer or the sacrifice that much more pleasant to God. Thus the self-indulgence also had a utility, but not as the rich had imagined: it had served their own self-destruction. Instead of making sure that a hungry brother or sister was indeed “well fed” (2:16), the rich “fattened” themselves; soon they would find that their own bodies would “feed” the all-consuming wrath of “the day of slaughter.” Based on the unsightly dismemberment of human bodies common in warfare, this metaphor of butchery for the ancients suggested the preparation of meat for a great victory feast at the end of battle. The slaughter of the battle can then be regarded as a preliminary part of the celebration and, therefore, the “glory” of war—from the victor’s perspective. In this case the enemy turned out to be the unjust rich, something already alluded to in James (cf. 2:6).

This section of James should send tremors through many American Christians, for the culture in which we live is fundamentally oriented toward leisure. Whether people say they live to “play” or that they “worship the game,” all such living represents a massive investment of one’s worldly possessions primarily for pleasure. Some may swoon, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful,” but there are always real evils involved with such a self-indulgent attitude and this motivation for living. These selfish tendencies in every culture must be fiercely assaulted with the Word of God in order to expose their gross sinfulness and harm to others.

5:6 The question of the guilt of the unjust rich is decided by James in this verse, declaring the final ground for the punishment of the rich on the last day: they have “condemned and murdered innocent men.” The laborers whose Christian character had restrained them from rebelliousness are innocent of any crime, certainly of any against the rich. But rather than being rewarded for their worthwhile labor they supplied to the rich, these day laborers had been made to suffer for applying their faith to their work. Such suffering is the basic reason God has elected the poor to be rich in his grace (cf. 2:5). God selects the poor and converts them to serve as a sign of his glory, nullifying what the world has taken for glory and wealth (cf. 1 Cor 1:28–29).

But these working poor are the very ones that the rich had condemned, these poor, who as fellow believers should have been treated with honor and respect out of duty. Instead, the rich had acted like judges of their fellow believers (in spite of James’s question, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” in 4:12). The righteous poor had become like the servant thrown into prison by his unmerciful fellow servant in Jesus’ parable. In that parable both servants are debtors, and the unmerciful one is shown the greater mercy (Matt 18:21–35). The first servant, who had borrowed a vastly greater sum of money (like the rich who posses nothing but have received an extraordinarily large “loan” from God) had lived a much more luxurious life than his poor fellow servant. His greater debt had been forgiven, but the mercy he received did not transform him into a merciful person. And so the words of the rich will be used against them, much as in Jesus’ teaching against the proud: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:37). And again: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matt 12:7). So by their own condemning words the rich were voicing their own condemnation.

James declared, however, that these rich had not only condemned the righteous but had committed acts of murder. If the earlier reference to breaking the law by the sin of adultery (2:11) was at first puzzling, it was fully substantiated by revealing the idolatry of their friendship with the world (4:4). Next to the rehearsal of the commandment against adultery was that of the commandment against murder—James forcefully alluded to this in 4:2, “You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.” The connection between covetousness and murder is now brought to full light here. The suffering caused to the poor by unjustly withholding wages has caused many of their deaths. This equation of economic injustice and murder is anticipated in intertestamental Jewish literature.

Bread is life to the destitute,

and to deprive them of it is murder.

To rob your neighbour of his livelihood is to kill him,

and he who defrauds a worker of his wages sheds blood.

Sir 34.21–22, REB

Even though the rich may have given thanks to God for their successes, their praises were proven to be a sham if they had neglected the needs of poor laborers.

The vicious connection between idolatry, mercilessness, and murder becomes part of the guiding logic of James as he sternly warned his audience. God, who “opposes the proud” (4:6), here does so by slaying them because, as seen earlier, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (2:13). Not to have done what they knew they should have done was sin (4:17), and God would treat the oppressive rich as he treated all of his enemies: destroying the destroyers of his people. The poor among James’s hearers also should hear this promise, even those in the middle classes, so that they could develop a wiser response to the unjust rich than envying them (3:14) and coveting what was theirs; for finally what was theirs was God’s judgment. The workers were right not to oppose the rich evildoers who had mistreated them (cf. Matt 5:39). Their innocence then became the final indisputable piece of evidence against the rich who had brought about many of their deaths by a continual lust for more wealth.

—New American Commentary