Jamesby Douglas Estes
James switches to another issue: wealth. Whereas we tend to group people into three categories-lower, middle, and upper class-thinkers and writers in the ancient world put them into only two groups: rich and poor.
Conventional wisdom suggests that in James' day, most people were poor-especially Christians. However, by the time John was writing Revelation, the Christians in Laodicea could go so far as to claim that their wealth had made them great (Revelation 3:17). While many of James' readers were poor, there were some who were materially rich. Many were also gaining some degree of financial influence in the ″commercial class″ economic boom caused by the spread of the Roman empire2-though the elites still considered them poor. And many, while not materially wealthy, reflected the attitudes of the elite (see Day 11). James' warning was thus likely directed at both the rich as well as those who were in the process of becoming more wealthy or who behaved as if they were.
James grabs his readers' attention with, ″Now listen!″ (James 5:1). He is speaking to them in much the same way as he did in his other scenarios. If we are rich as James describes, then we had better be prepared to weep for the ″misery″ that is coming upon us (v. 1). This warning is followed by a list of problems associated with those who are rich (vv. 2-6): your wealth has rotted; you have hoarded; you have failed to pay people; you have lived in indulgence; and you have condemned the innocent.
It is important to note that after listing these problems, James does not offer a simple summary on how to deal with wealth. Thus, we can interpret this to mean that wealth introduces a host of problems into a believer's life. As with much of James' words, he is reflecting the teachings of Jesus (v. 2, compare with Matthew 6:19-21). Their argument does not appear to be that wealth itself is sinful, but that wealth exposes one to a great deal of sin. Although not rich, many of James' readers would have found themselves with some wealth. James' words comes across as a strong warning not to emulate the failures of the rich.
Many people today find themselves in a position where they do not feel wealthy but would still be considered rich by people who lived just a few generations ago. The attitudes that surround wealth is difficult to navigate in any generation. Though we ourselves may not feel wealthy, we must not follow the world's lead and think or act the way James warns us against. Whatever degree of material wealth we possess, our real treasure is in the spiritual gifts that God gives-so that we can bless those around us.
2Emanuel Mayer, The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 BCE (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 2.
How can wealth become a slow cancer that eats away at a person's spiritual life? How can a person be ″well-off″ or ″comfortable″ in our world today, and yet not fall into sin?