Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.James 5:1-6 (NRSV)
The Letter of James in the New Testament has always intrigued me. I view it as an exposition and application of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In 108 verses we find 60 imperatives. The author (who is unknown) was writing to those who were already Christians. In other words, his aim was not to convert non-Christians but to explicate the ethical implications of the faith for those already baptized in Jesus’ name. His letter insists that the lives of those who have chosen to follow Jesus must reflect the fruits of repentance and transformation in the likeness of Jesus.
Often James is unfairly contrasted with Paul. The result of such a contrast has typically preferred Paul over James, the latter being considered somewhat of a legalist. The main issue in this contrast is how Paul and James understood “faith” and “works.” Martin Luther labeled James as “an epistle of straw.” Though not rejecting James as part of the canon, he clearly understood James to be secondary to the Gospels and the letters of Paul which were written, in part, to evangelize non-Christians. Luther, promoting what I see as a truncated understanding of faith, was perturbed by James’ focus on works and his condemnation of a faith which produced no appreciable changes in one’s daily living. For James, faith was more than intellectual consent or wallowing in “being saved by faith” with no evidence of ethical transformation.
I personally see no conflict between Paul and James. Words have different meanings and uses. “Works” for Paul referred to those actions designed to secure one’s salvation. He especially focused on those aspects of Jewish law such as dietary requirements and circumcision. Such practices were incapable of “saving” anyone. One was saved by the grace of God through one’s faith. However, for Paul, such faith referred to one’s loyal relationship to Christ and had two components: trust and fidelity. Those who became new creations in Christ would bear the fruits of the Spirit, chief of which was love. A faith without such practical and visible acts of love was no faith at all. Paul’s understanding of the Christian life is perhaps best revealed in Galatians 5:6 where he wrote about “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). I suggest James would have applauded such a description of the life of any Christian.
Years ago, when I taught religion at a liberal arts college, I asked my class to respond to something I had just read. Most of the class accused the author of radical socialism if not communism. One student labeled the words as “pinko-liberal” nonsense. I then asked the class to turn to James 5:1-6 and called on the student who made the “pinko-liberal” comment to read the passage out loud. What I had read was that very passage. (I got into more trouble quoting the Bible to Fundamentalists than anything else I ever said or did. These students who believed the Bible was inerrant and infallible were woefully ignorant of what the Scriptures actually say. Their Fundamentalist theology was more important to them than the Scriptures or even the words and example of Jesus.)
James 5:1-6 is not a message that is well-received in our American capitalist society. In fact, most of the Letter of James is suspect in the eyes of those inclined to bigotry, greed, and violence. In this particular passage, James condemns the rich for their greed, the advantage they take of their workers, and their extravagant lifestyles made possible by their use and misuse of the poor. James particularly singles out the ways in which the rich cheat their laborers and withhold their wages. In the corrupt world of the Roman Empire, the poor had no recourse when suffering because of such oppression and orchestrated poverty.
Needless to say, such oppression and abuse continue in our day. Sometimes, it’s upfront and obvious. For example, #45 had a habit of not paying his workers. If they complained, he countered, “Sue me” knowing that the legal costs incurred by these workers would probably exceed the wages they had lost. At other times, withholding what would be paid to laborers if they were fairly compensated occurs in more complex and hidden ways. For instance, our Congress refuses to pass legislation mandating a livable minimum wage. It’s immoral for people in Congress with their obscene wealth and privilege to refuse to raise the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour. They argue that such a measure would throw too many of the poor out of work and ruin the American economy. And of course, they may be correct as long as most of the profits from businesses go to CEOs and investors who are allowed legal but immoral tax breaks and advantages. I would suggest that more of those profits could be used to pay a decent wage for workers without unfairly inconveniencing those who already enjoy wealthy lifestyles. (Please remember that the legal Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. States can raise the minimum wage, but many states, like Indiana and twenty other states, follow the Federal minimum wage requirement.) I would like to see how any member of Congress would fare on a $7.25 per hour wage. I am confident that James would see such unconscionable wages as a way of cheating workers. And yes, I am aware of all the convenient and questionable excuses so many of us use in trying to defend the insidious inequity so rampant in our country. But the bottom line is this: The minimum wage of $7.25 may be legal, but it’s not ethical or fair. [The minimum wage has not been raised since July of 2009 when it was raised to the current level of $7.25. Compare that paltry increase with the increased wealth of billionaires over the same period of time. Of the more than 700 US billionaires, the richest five (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Elon Musk) saw a 113% increase in their combined wealth during the period between March 18, 2020 and July 9, 2021, from $349 billion to $743 billion. The combined wealth of all US billionaires increased by $1.763 TRILLION (59.8%) during the same period. We should also be aware that since the 1970s, real wages have stagnated for over half of the US workforce while the cost of health care, housing, and other basic needs has risen.]
But there is an even more sinister way in which workers have just and fair wages withheld. Corporations decided over the past few decades to move their companies oversees. Instead of paying $7.25 an hour or more to American workers, they discovered they could pay pennies an hour to workers who are so desperate that they will work for very little. The argument is made that without those jobs, the poor in other impoverished nations would be even poorer. That may be true, but is it a compassionate and just system? Is it fair? And I’m not talking about all the jobs lost in the US. (I find it so ridiculous that workers here claim that immigrants may take their poor-paying jobs. Their poor-paying jobs with no benefits are not being lost to immigrants. Those jobs, along with their companies, were shipped overseas so that companies and investors could make obscene profits at the expense of the poorest people in the world.)
However, corporations and investors are not the only ones to blame. The oppression of these workers is also the result of our collective greed and demand for cheap prices. Clothing, electrical devices, and just about everything else are currently made outside the US. Too many of these products are made by laborers working long hours for pitiful wages often under horrible conditions. Some products are even made by slave labor. (The national minimum monthly wage in Bangladesh for garment workers is TK 8000. That converts into $93.18. Can any of us imagine trying to live on $93 a month after working long, grueling hours often in appalling conditions?) But since all this injustice (sin) is conveniently hidden from our eyes, we can merrily continue the American dream of materialism without moral compunction. Evil in our day can be so sophisticated, complicated, and intertwined with everyday life that it is not even recognized. But there are hundreds of millions who are suffering from this dastardly economic system of production and consumption.
James’ message is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. It’s just more difficult to see evil for what it is in our global economy. We will have the “good life” whatever the cost to others. And because the misery involved in keeping us content with paying less for more is hidden from our eyes, we think this arrangement can continue. And perhaps it will continue—perhaps forever. But If Jesus was correct, and if James following Jesus’ teachings was correct, there is One (along with so many other ones) who sees the suffering, evil, and cost of such sophisticated, wily, convenient greed. As Thomas Jefferson said regarding his own practice of slavery, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”