Have you ever oppressed the weak? Have you ever been oppressed by the powerful? Here is a timely message from Kairos Journal.
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 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. 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. 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; you have murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1-6 (ESV)
The Overcoat is one of Nikolai Gogol’s greatest short stories. The main character, Akaky, is a low-level government clerk with few friends and fewer rubles. After discovering that his overcoat—the difference between life and death in a St. Petersburg winter—has worn too thin to be mended, he scrapes and saves until he can afford a new one. For a few days, life is wonderful—full of promise and hope. Then he is robbed, his coat stolen. The police are of no assistance and purchasing another is inconceivable. Hoping to get help in retrieving his coat and with winter in full force, Akaky pays a visit to the only “important personage” he knows. The official, showing off for a guest, treats Akaky like vermin: he brushes the clerk aside but only after rebuking him for his insolence in seeking aid. Days later Akaky dies of a fever—killed as surely by the pride and arrogance of a well-fed superior as by the wind and frost of winter.
James, the brother of Jesus, prophesied a terrible judgment for those who have abused or ignored the poor. The apostle notes several offenses. First, they laid up treasure in the last days (v. 3). In other words, they stockpiled their wealth as if it could bring them eternal comfort. Second, they defrauded or robbed their workers (v. 4). In this was great scandal: some of the wealth laid up by these rich is not even their own. They held back the wages the poor deserved. Third, they lived in senseless luxury (literally they caroused, v. 5). They did more than stockpile the wealth, they lavished themselves with comfort, granting every whim and feeding every fancy. Fourth, they condemned and murdered the helpless, the righteous (v. 6). Scripture often equates the poor with the righteous (Ps. 37:16; Isa. 29:19; Luke 6:20); here is the climax of James’ pronouncement: in their hearts the rich have both judged and murdered their own laborers. God will not take such malevolence lightly.
What are the rich to hear from this text today? First, God cares how wealth is procured (trampling over employees on the road to prosperity is not a biblical option). The only reliable way to assure that one is rightly treating his employees is to live a life disciplined by biblical truths. For some organizations, this means actually having a periodic “ethics audit” in which an independent counsel examines legitimate and illegitimate business practices. Whether or not this formal approach is taken, it is imperative that anyone who has to make a payroll subjects himself to a faithful preaching ministry that will keep him accountable. Hearing a sermon on James 5 just might save him from spiritual ruin.
Second, God cares how wealth is spent. There is no hope for the self-indulgent. It is clear throughout the Scriptures that the prophets abhorred mindless extravagance. Knowing where to draw the line is difficult, but those who are comparatively wealthy—and that includes most living in the West—truly need to live in a community of people that encourages wisdom in spending. A hard word in due season can, over time, prevent the kind of lifestyle which the Bible considers so dangerous.