The Prideful Rich Landowners
James condemns those who have taken security in their material wealth as opposed to their salvation. In this case, they are land owners. They owned fields. The decay of their hoarded riches testified against them. (3) Notice that he says they accumulated riches in the last days. His thought was that Christ would return and judgment would come, making their wealth irrelevant. Certainly those Jews who were left in Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city lost all their possessions. I wonder if that rich young man who walked away from Jesus was there, losing all his possessions and losing his soul because he chose possessions over Jesus.
Notice that he reflects the words of Jesus: rotten riches, moth eaten clothes, corroded gold and silver. Jesus said “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal…” (Matthew 6:19)
James also condemned them for holding back wages from their workers. The Old Testament law required prompt payment. Many workers needed that day’s wages to buy food for their family. If they were not paid, their family did not eat. Leviticus 19:13 required owners to pay laborers at the end of the day, not waiting until the next morning. Deuteronomy 24:14 required payment before sunset. God is very concerned with social justice and the treatment of the poor. The Sabbath specifically applied to servants. (Exodus 20:10) You could not take the Sabbath off but make your servants work. You had to free a slave in the seventh year. (Exodus 21:2) So, getting rich off of a poor man’s wages was offensive to God. (I wish I had known to send this verse to my clients when I had my own business.) I want to pay a fair price for what I buy. I want to tip young waiters generously for serving me. I do not want to save money off of the back of poor people.
The younger generations today are very concerned with social justice. They do not want to belong to churches or other organizations that condone injustice. My youngest daughter will not shop at a well known discount chain because they work to keep their employees from getting benefits and they pay very low wages.
James also condemned them because they mistreated their workers. (6) He said they had condemned and murdered righteous people who did not resist them. This is another sentence that raises the question: is this literal or figurative language? Did they condemn people by their slander? Did they actually kill people? Or is this hyperbole for mistreatment? Either way, Christians must treat those who serve us justly and kindly.
If we have sinned in this regard, repentance is in order. Otherwise judgment is coming. James tells them to weep and howl at the miseries that are coming upon them. These are words of judgment like the Old Testament prophets said to Israel.