The second reading for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time is another no-holds-barred passage from James, 5:1-6:
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.
There are difficulties for anyone who wanders too far away from areas of expertise. If there is anyone incapable of functioning in an economically astute manner, it is me. As a result, whenever I run across a passage such as this in the Letter of James, which seems to have to do with economics, I get scared of how to interpret it, knowing of my very real limitations. Is this simply a screed against wealth? Or the wealthy? Is this teaching applicable to economic systems or to person’s hearts? Should it be understood in the historical context of 1st century economics or the context of the perennial problem of greed? Are the wealthy, due simply to their wealth, truly in danger of being consumed by fire? Does wealth always imply a misuse of resources and the oppression of workers? Jesus’ teachings throughout the Gospels, but in Luke especially (see the parable of the Rich Fool (12:13-21) for an example), seem to balance the danger of wealth to one’s soul, which is real, with the understanding that wealth can be used properly for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. Does this passage from James leave any such room?
My late professor, Ben F. Meyer, used to warn interpreters of the "flight from the intended sense" when it would conflict with our deeply held, if often disordered, loves and biases, and so I want to be sensitive to the danger of making James say what I want James to say, or toning down the sharpness of James’ condemnation of the wealthy. I do not think James, in the midst of the first century, is attempting to delineate a political and economic system for the twenty-first century. I think he is warning the rich of the tendency to rely on wealth, not on God, and the desire to cheat the poor in order to maintain wealth. What does change, I think, with respect to the twenty-first century is that more of us fit in the category of "wealthy" than did in the first century. Again, this is not a sly way to inject modern economics into an ancient text, or to call for increased marginal tax rates, because I do not even know what a marginal tax rate is, but to state a blunt reality. The poor in the ancient world were truly poor, often without clothes to wear, or sandals on their feet, or food for the next day. There were no social safety nets, unless begging or slavery could be considered such. Today, the number of people who live in houses with central heat and air, indoor plumbing, two cars, computers, flat-screen TVs, PlayStation3s, and regular vacations puts us amongst the wealthiest people who have ever lived. Even if we consider ourselves "lower middle-class."
What are we doing with our wealth? How are we complicit in the misuse of wealth or workers? We must all ask these questions, not because we are all economists, but because we are followers of Jesus Christ. The way in which we use our wealth and the way in which we are attached to it has implications, James suggests, for our eternal souls. The last lines of the passage, "You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance," place our focus on material wealth into the context of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary. How are luxury and pleasure connected to Jesus’ death?
"You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance" (NAB) is translated similarly by the NRSV: "You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you." Yet, the NRSV setting of the last phrase as a relative clause heightens the sense that our condemnation and murder of the righteous one has been performed through Christ’s willingness to allow us to choose between luxury and pleasure, which turns us away from the righteous one in indifference, or to choose for the poor and those in need, which turns us toward the righteous one, in whatever century in which we live. It is much easier in my mind to apply this passage to those who are "really" wealthy, you know, those people with a lot more money than you or me, of which there are many, but to meditate on it ourselves might be the most prudent path. After all, "Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries" sharpens one’s mind and attentions.