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The opening verses of James 5 have puzzled interpreters of James for quite some time. Why does he address a message about riches to congregations comprised of poor people? Let’s read his words and attempt to apply his teaching to our lives.
James 5.1-6 – Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
Riches and Wisdom from Below
As I have frequently written, I think the key to understanding much of James is his comparison between the wisdom from above (God’s wisdom) and wisdom from below. Let’s use this comparison to understand this passage from James.
(1) Wisdom from below is characterized by “bitter envy and selfish ambition” (James 3.14). “Fat cats” who live “on the earth in luxury and in pleasure” (James 5.5) are often motivated by envy and selfish ambition.
James is a short book. It is not too difficult to remember what James wrote about the poor. He said, “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2.5).
Just for comparison purposes, the next time you check out at the grocery store, I challenge you to find a tabloid with this headline, “The Poor of the World – Rich in Faith.”
Again, do you think you will ever find on television a program celebrating the “Kingdom Housewives of Urban Los Angeles,” who are living in humble apartments that cost them half of their monthly income in rent?
The wisdom from below motivates people to have envy and selfish ambition to possess qualities that James says is certainly to perish. Why don’t you re-read what James has to say about this kind of self-seeking and ask yourself how you measure up?
(2) Wisdom from below produces “disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3.16). Selfish ambition never has enough, so it cheats its labor force and abuses the poor through so-called legal means (James 5.4 and 6).
I once worked for a man, who was fabulously wealthy. During the five years I worked for him, the only time I received a raise was when it was passed by the government. I received a valuable education during those five years and was not hurt by a minimum wage. However, that was not the case of a fellow laborer, who was forty and married with three children.
The Old Testament prophets speak loudly and often against such practices. One among many instances of the denunciation of this kind of wisdom from below is from Isaiah.
“The Lord enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.” (Isaiah 3.14-15)
(3) Wisdom from below “does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (James 3.15). Each of these sources of evil is involved in the selfish seeking for wealth that James describes. Consider the “devilish,” demon-inspired aspect of wisdom from below.
The devil is our enemy, who is out to steal, kill and destroy life. The forced inequality of people groups and nations by the powerful has been the source of tremendous pain and death. War and conflict can often be traced to this devilish wisdom toward wealth.
Good News about the Rich
There are people of wealth that attend Maywood Baptist Church, who wouldn’t consider themselves rich. They use their wealth with wisdom from God and benefit many people. How beneficial are many for the way they serve as wise stewards of God’s wealth.
I could list other examples of people in our nation and world, who use wealth in a manner that is characterized by wisdom from above. Praise God for all of them.
Oppressed People and Wisdom from Below
One of the disgusting tricks of the devil is to further the pain of oppressed people by seducing them into using the wisdom from below. The oppressed sadly become oppressors.
A Hitler was created in an environment of oppression. The German people were soundly defeated in World War I. Their broken spirit longed for German greatness to ascend once again. Hitler provided the best answer, but it was nothing but the wisdom from below. An oppressed people, in turn oppressed surrounding countries with their war machine and mass-murdered between 5 and 11 million Jewish people.
Communism was supposed to free the people who were oppressed by the Russian Czars. Instead, the oppressed became the oppressor. It is estimated that their supposed liberator, Joseph Stalin, killed 20 million of his own people in a so-called cleansing of the nation.
James makes it clear to the poor. The wisdom we should follow looks like this: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3.17).
If you are leading people, make sure that you are leading from the kind of wisdom James’ recommends, God’s wisdom.
If you are following a leader, make sure that leader demonstrates the characteristics of wisdom from above.
Good News for the Poor
Abraham once boldly asked God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18.25). Meditate on this verse and envision Martin Barnes’ arrival in heaven the other day.
Martin was a quiet and abundantly peaceful man. I never knew him to be anything other than humble. He made his living scrapping metal and was always willing to pick up any scrap that people discarded.
Martin was a faithful member of Robbie Davis’ Sunday School class. He often helped Ricky Beach, Ray Martin, Rick and Donna Shepard, and others feed the homeless on Benton Boulevard in Northeast Kansas City.
When people visited him in the hospital or gave him a call, he was profoundly appreciative. His battle with diabetes is finally over and Martin has a new body in heaven.
Not only did Abraham acknowledge God’s justice, but Jesus said, “But many who are first will be last; and the last, first” (Matthew 19.30).
I believe the Judge of all the earth will do justice. People like Martin may be viewed as “last place finishers” on earth, but I am convinced they will be “first place finishers” in heaven.
That is the good news of the prophets, James, Paul and most importantly of Jesus.
Dear God, thank you that your wisdom is available for all people. We desire to live by your wisdom. Please free us from envy and selfish ambition. Please show us how to live properly with our possessions.