Beware the trap of ill gotten gain
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 and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (Jas 5:4-6)
The fact is, you can’t hide anything from God. When you read that the wages these rich people withheld from the workers was crying out, you should be reminded of God’s conversation with Cain. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me” or perhaps you are reminded of the voices of the souls under the altar crying out for vengeance (Rev 6). The point is vengeance is the the Lord’s, He will repay.
We have a defender and a righteous judge. He is not going to be fooled by accounting tricks and strange justifications for your actions. Jesus told the Pharisees that their practice of Corban was in violation of God’s command to honor their father and mother. (Mt 15) (Corban was a way to defraud their parents of what was owed them.) James tells his audience that their fraud (by whatever means it was happening) is in violation of God’s justice. Again, it isn’t the riches that James is condemning but the attitudes of the rich, the way they obtained it and how they are using it.
Living on earth in luxury and self-indulgence may bring to mind the story of Lazarus and the rich man. When the man woke up dead in Hades, he was reminded how he had such a grand life style in his life and Lazarus had nothing. We have to keep in mind that it is not how much you have but what you do with it that makes the difference. If only he had shown mercy to Lazarus.
Fattening your hearts is not a good thing, and these men did it while others were suffering. Then he says that they condemned and murdered the righteous person and he does not resist. How can they? They are poor. If the rich drag you to court, all the power is on their side. When Jezebel had Naboth killed for his vineyard, the power was in the government. Do not think for a moment you are getting out judgement, God is not mocked.
(side note: you may be struck with the similarity of this and those who are accused of what is called “corporate greed”. No such issue is in James’ mind. The world will be the world. Corporate Greed, to the extent it exists, is the way those in the world will run things. These were Christians in the Lord’s church, they are expected to run their business–even should they be the CEO–in a way consistent with the Faith. However, I not be surprised or spend effort protesting a non Christian who does not live by the same morality Christ asks of me.)
While James does not condemn riches, this passage begs the question of how can we avoid being like that. I think that we need to learn to be content with what we have. Perhaps even using those gains and increases in our income as a means to first serve God and then use for ourselves. No commandment can be pointed to as a statement of ‘this much’ or ‘that much’. The NT teaching is “As you have prospered” from I cor 16 and “cheerfully” from 2 cor 9. Wisdom says though you need a deliberate action in the desire to serve God.
Decide what you will give. Don’t swear a plan before God because you cannot control the future: If the Lord will, I will both live and give this or that.
One brother said that his custom was to increase his weekly giving by $10 at the beginning of the year. He said he never lacked. Another suggestion is to live at or around the middle-income level regardless of your income and use the vast majority of the rest to serve God. Most people focus on 10% but I think a strong case could be made for a Christian striving to give more. Willing giving is more important than what you give.
If you have an abundance of money, you might not put all the money in the collection plate, you might hold some back yourself to help others personally. This is an example of “visiting” the poor.
Let James’s words sink in and live in such a way that if James were writing to us, we would not get this type of condemnation.