1. You rich people should cry and weep! Terrible things are going to happen to you. 2 Your treasures have already rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your money has rusted, and the rust will be evidence against you, as it burns your body like fire. Yet you keep on storing up wealth in these last days. 4 You refused to pay the people who worked in your fields, and now their unpaid wages are shouting out against you. The Lord All-Powerful has surely heard the cries of the workers who harvested your crops.
5 While here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. But now you are like fat cattle on their way to be butchered. 6 You have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back.
The snarl of the peasant Prophet Amos is heard again in this diatribe of James. Anger and derision are its keynotes, unyielding justice its sentence. The words of Jesus about moths and rust attacking earthly treasure are repeated along with the inventive detail that the sleek bodies of the rich will also be eaten by rust. The time of judgement is near but the rich take no heed and keep on increasing their wealth.
If we are poor we may feel comforted by this, but in truth, the last day has not come and the rich are richer than ever. Perhaps we can imagine that the rich have gone to their judgement after their death, but that is little comfort for those who live in poverty now.
James says that the cries of the unpaid workers have been heard by God, but what evidence is there of that? Did the Lord hear the cries of the oppressed workers in Sports Direct? Or was the Lord deaf until the Guardian planted a witness in the warehouse and politicians put the owner on the spot? Certainly no worker or union would be wise to trust that the Lord would take action in the near future. Radical catholic writers have talked about God’s “preferential option for the poor” which apart from being a vile expression, seems to promise more than God apparently delivers. Liberation theologians who used it rightly urged the poor to act vigorously on their own behalf and to recruit as much help as they could, because waiting on God to act might involve a long wait.
James, however is convinced that God will act by ushering in the time of judgement, when the rich will go to punishment like fat cattle to the abbatoir. I write with the belief that God does not intefere in the processes of nature or history, except through human beings; but I am at odds with all the writers of the New Testament who shared a conviction that God’s decisive action, by which he would establish his rule in the world, was not far away. As can be seen in the next section, this allowed James to counsel patience and endurance to the victims of power, who could expect God’s speedy deliverance.
If Christian believers no longer see themselves as living in the end times, they have either to ditch many bits of the scripture or arrive at a new interpretation of them. This is a challenge I will take up when I have completed my commentary on James.