James 5:1-6

Money Problems

As we enter the last chapter of the letter, we see that James addresses a specific group of people:  the rich.  Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you (v.1). Now there is some debate amongst Bible scholars as to exactly which group of rich James has in view here.  Are these the ungodly rich outside the church?  Or is he writing to the backslidden rich within the church?  I am not convinced that we need to resolve this debate because regardless of exactly who James is addressing, there is a word of warning for all of us.   We all need to consider how we are using whatever resources we have been blessed by God to receive.  The issue is not the possession of money, but rather the love of money.  Albert Barnes, a 19th century pastor, writes in his commentary on James: “There is no sin in merely being rich; where sin exists peculiarly among the rich, it arises from the manner in which wealth is acquired, the spirit which it tends to engender in the heart, and the way in which it is used (Notes on the Bible).”  We’ll use these 3 categories to frame our study of James.

#1 The Manner It Is Acquired

Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. James 5:4

James addresses the sinful ways wealth is acquired or maintained.  He calls out those rich who have made gains through injustice by withholding wages from workers.  This wealth was attained at the expense of poor laborers who likely had no way of protesting.  This was an awful injustice, that day-laborers would be deprived not only of their fair pay but perhaps even deprived of the means to feed their own families. And all this while they watch the rich get richer.  There is a provision in the Old Testament law (c.f. Leviticus 19) that sought to care for the poor by prohibiting land owners from harvesting their entire crop.  They were not to harvest to the very edge of their fields so as to leave food for the poor.  The ungodly rich to whom James addresses not only fail to provide for the poor, they actively defraud them!

#2 The Spirit It Engenders

Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. James 5:2-3

Notice the vivid language: your riches have rottedyour clothing is moth-eaten, your gold and silver are corroded and ultimately your riches will eat your flesh like fire.  Surely this is not what is going through someone’s head as they are hoarding their wealth and possessions.  Sometimes the rich are condemned for how they spend their money.  In fact, we’ll see this in just a moment later in the passage, but this is not the issue here.  Here James warns of the danger of not using your wealth.  Calvin is helpful at this point; he writes: “God has not appointed gold for rust, nor garments for moths; but, on the contrary, he has designed them as aids and helps to human life.”  Why are their garments moth-eaten?  Because they aren’t using them!  And why aren’t they using them?  Most likely because they have too many of them.  They should have been given to others who could have used them.

Being rich is not a sin.  The problem is not having money but loving money.  The Bible does not arbitrarily condemn all rich.  There are essentially 2 categories for the rich in the Bible: the righteous and the unrighteous.  Abraham is a good example of a man who was extraordinarily wealthy — and righteous.  He used the wealth he was given by God in a righteous way.  Being faithful to the call that God had given him (c.f. Genesis 12), he understood that he was blessed to be a blessing.

#3 The Way It Is Used

You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.  James 5:5-6

What have the ungodly rich done with their wealth?  They have used it to pursue their own pleasures living in luxury and self-indulgence.  It seems that they are living “life to the fullest,” but it is a very worldly life.  The love of material things are a distraction that can lead us away from what matters most.  Jesus warns of this in the parable of the sower.  There are those who hear God’s Word but their hearts are full of thorns.  “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful (Mark 4:19).”  Money is not the root of evil — it’s the love of money that is the root of all kinds evil.  Materialism, at the very least, is a distraction from what matters most and at worst can become a replacement for God in our lives.  

The love of money leads us to condemn and to murder.  The ungodly rich have not only taken money from the poor, they have proceeded to take the very lives of the poor as well.  And the righteous poor offered no resistance.   We are reminded that Jesus was betrayed because of a love of money — a mere 30 pieces of silver to be exact (c.f. Matthew 26:15).  We can’t read this verse without being reminded of Jesus. He was the Righteous One who was condemned to death at the hands of the ungodly rich. He offered no resistance but rather “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:7).”

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it a sin to be rich?  What are some ways wealth can lead someone into sin?
  2. Why are the rich to “weep and howl?”  What are the miseries that are coming upon them (verse 1)?
  3. What attitude does God have toward hoarding wealth (verses 2 & 3)?
  4. What kinds of things have you been tempted to hoard?  Why do you think we tend to hoard?
  5. There are two groups of people referenced in verse 4 — the laborers and the rich.  Describe what you think life may have been like for each group.
  6. What are some common temptations you think people face in being honest with their money?
  7. What according to James is wrong with living in luxury and self-indulgence (verse 5)?  How do you know if your standard of living is self-indulgent or not?
  8. Are you generous with the resources God has given you?  In what areas would you like to grow in generosity?
  9. How does the gospel help us to root out the love of money from our hearts?
  10. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?






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