5 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your 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. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
When I read this text my first response was, “Why, Lord? O why didn’t I ask Helen to preach this week?” What was I going to say? And then I was helped in the oddest way by the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, and chickens. The CDC has recently declared a public health emergency because average people are raising backyard chickens, kissing them, and contracting salmonella. Sothey are responding with a promotional campaign warning people of the danger.
Now, maybe you don’t kiss chickens - maybe you do. Maybe our biblical text about the dangers of hoarding wealth doesn’t directly deal with you – maybe it does. Maybe you aren’t technically “rich” or a “hoarder.” Maybe you haven’t failed to pay workers or maybe you’re saying, “I don’t have workers unless children count.” That’s fine. Then be like James and the CDC – be willing to warn others about tragic consequences. Call out dangeror injustice when you see it. Be willing to speak for the innocent or the marginal when you hear about it. Maybe you haven’t “condemned or murdered” but have you looked? Maybe you can’t ultimately change the broader society but you can warn people about what not to kiss, what harms, what hurts, what makes them and others sick.
So I would like to use this text in a different way this morning. I’d like to imagine that it’s not calling us to account for deeds done per se. I’d like to imagine that it’s a job description for what we must do. If James, the half-brother of Jesus, is our mentor, what is the prophetic task that he is calling us to? What does he want us to be saying to a dangerously wealthy society?
1. Tell the truth about wealth in this life
The “rich people” here are very possibly non-Christians which changes the tenor of this part of James’ letter (vs. 11 is “brothers and sisters” rather than “rich people”). It means that Christian theology is never simply “family business” and private but also should be public, civic and social. God is Lord of, and over, everything and everyone. Now, the prophetic role and its public dimension is not the role of a cop or even a judge – it’s more like the CDC – warning about tragic, public health concerns; aiding in public health crises. It doesn’t police them. Christians often get into trouble when they turn from prophets to police. And let’s also be honest, the church as a prophet is rare (save, possibly a few concerns). The church as a prophet about money is practically non-existent.
Some of you are already thinking, “But wait a minute, pastor, being rich is not a sin.” - I know. “Wealth is not the devil.” - I know. But the poor are never warned as much as the rich, you know? There is a great temptation with wealth to “hoard” it, James says, and to fail to pay people a proper working wage. And that temptation does not simply impact the wealthy in some future judgment but is corrosive in this life, James says. – their wealth “has rotted,” “have eaten,” “are corroded.” Hoarded wealth, James insists, is poisonous in the present because it hurts the poor in the present.
James reminds us that the prophetic task isn’t simply to warn about future consequences but that there is a current danger as well, and that we can use strong language not because we know the future but because God exists in the present, knows now rather than later, works currently and not merely after. All your best plans, your precious idols, your paper money, can go – just like that, *snap,* he warns. And they will – sooner or later. They will tell your story, testify as to what you’ve done. In the courtroom of your life yourmoney will take the stand. My former pastor tells of performing a wedding for a wealthy couple in a national park in Colorado. As part of the wedding ceremony, the couple had butterflies shipped on dry ice (to put them in a sort of stasis) in individually wrapped paper cocoons. Each wedding guests was given a paper cocoon that he or she was to keep near their body to warm up so that at the proper moment they could release the butterflies to herald the new couple’s commitment. Unfortunately, however, there were two things the couple did not expect. First, the day of the wedding was colder than normal temperatures so that when the butterflies were released they were unable to fly and all came flitting to the ground. Second, they didn’t know that this park was known for a large flock
of wild chickens. As my pastor told the story, their marriage was celebrated by a carnage of epic proportions. As Christian prophets we must tell an economy whose sole point of reference is “more”, whose primary concern is cheaper labor, whose poor are ever increasing, whose planet is being abused, that the chickens will come to roost. We must warn of the impending carnage in this life.
2. Listen, look, and speak for the oppressed
Three imperatives are very much a part of the prophetic task:
Listen (vs. 1) – Who should we listen to? On the one hand, James has urged us to listen to the “Word of truth” (1:18) – the scriptures and all that they command about “love of neighbor” and help for the poor. Are you listening? But there’s more. One of the clear elements of our passage is that James is telling us that he has also listened to the poor and their stories of abuse. He is clearly referencing something that is happening in the present. It’s specific. Laborers are sharing their stories and James is listening. When I was a pastor in Santa Barbara I was part of an organization called CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice) and we were trying to deal with the growing problem of homelessness so we went out and started listening to those who were homeless. And we discovered something – that many of them were being ticketed for being on the street, immediately after being kicked out of the shelter because it lost 100 beds due to the city’s own conditional use permit. So it was the city that was placing them on the street and then ticketing them for being there. But James tells more than to listen.
Look (vs. 4) – The next task of the prophet is to investigate. It’s not simply enough to know what the Scriptures tell us but also to discover what is happening in the lives of people. We must takePsalm 10 and read in the midst of our city are broader political life. We must look at our cities with “love of neighbor eyes.” We must move beyond trafficking in opinions and pay careful attention to real instances of people and policies which seek to harm others, particularly the most vulnerable. We must bring our best critical thinking skills to the task.
Speak (for the oppressed) – Finally, we should share the stories we’ve heard with those in power. Prophets are called not simply to speak for God but also to the rich for those who cannot speak for themselves, or who are easily dismissed. Now, don’t forget what James already told you – be aware of insidious and caustic anger. Don’t engage in the behavior or methods of your opponents but neither should you stay silent. James’ letter is his refusal to say nothing. Friends, if you find yourself mainly (or only) speaking for those in power, defending the status quo, or simply silenced by a privatized spirituality of “you and Jesus,” then you are not modeling James’ letter and not being a Christian prophet.
3. The law won’t always help.
The first verb of vs. 6 (“condemn”) describes legal violence, the corruption of courts and the subsequent physical violence (“murder”) they can utilize and legitimate. The text intimates that the rich are leaders at some level, who have influence to shape who sits where in the synagogue and thus dominate the courtroom. The process for justice, in other words, is rigged.
On the one hand, I am not suggesting that laws don’t matter or are necessarily evil. Nor am I saying that we should simply be silent in the face of unjust laws. I am suggesting however, that the law should not be our primary, moral concern. The rich, James advises, will often twist the law to suit their own purposes. The cry of the prophet is not so much, “You have broken the law” but “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” Never forget – Jesus was executed by the law and all will give a reckoning to God because God sees, hears and knows.
The law, James tell us, can harm the righteous one, can be unjust.James is being intentionally vague here to make a point. The “righteous one” can mean the innocent one – the workers who are being hurt by the rich or it could be a designation for Jesus, the “righteous one” (Acts 3:14, 7:52, 22:14). Which is it? It doesn’t matter, James remembers because Jesus told us, because ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40). Do you want to find Jesus? Then we all know where to look.
Let’s pray for the courage of being prophets – to not simply listen to James but to BE James. But know that the task I’m calling you to is a corporate task, to be the church. You shouldn’t do this alone but maybe you know something, have heard something we should be doing. If you see something, say something.
Let’s pray for the courage to love – we must learn to love the poor and hurting more than we fear for ourselves.
Let’s pray for the courage to do better with our money – we must remember that it will not keep our secrets, but write our memoir.