February 6, 2019
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
This may be the most stinging passage in the whole letter. He references an absolute reversal of fortune for the rich. They have gone from mountains of money with lives of luxury and self indulgence to rotting wealth, moth eaten clothes, and corroded gold and silver. James must have been reflecting on the words of his brother, Jesus, when he said:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21.
You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.
It’s easy for me to think of people who have a lot more than I do when it comes to texts like these. My mind wants to turn to those who own multiple houses and have all the toys and take all the trips and stay in all the best places. It’s precisely the wrong move when it comes to texts like these. James does not want us to call to mind the proverbial 1%. James wants the slideshow running through our minds to turn to refugees driven from their homes and country, children sold into slavery, widows, orphans, single moms, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the aging and alone and so forth. James wants us to be convicted about the way we judge the poor for the money they spend on cigarettes and lottery tickets as we flash our Starbucks gift card at the register in exchange for yet another five-dollar latte.
The rich aren’t people who have more than we do. If you are reading this reflection, chances are the rich are you. At least I am coming to grips with the fact that the rich are me. I absolutely hate writing stuff like this. Probably more than my readers hate reading it. But just as we welcome the encouragement that comes from the Word of God, we must open ourselves to its confrontation and critique.
So what are we to do? The easy thing is to endure the brief storm of self-shaming that inevitably comes from such confrontation. We can feel bad about what we have, the relative luxury in which we live, and the seductive self-indulgence of our lifestyles. The truth? That will accomplish nothing of consequence. Repentance has much less to do with how bad we feel about ourselves and much more to do with how bad we feel about the brokenness of others. Repentance doesn’t so much look like me selling my stuff so I can give the money to the poor—though that is not a bad thing—as it looks like every day responsible relationships with people in need. It’s not about keeping my self-indulgence in check. It’s about learning to give myself away. When I begin to love people in need as I love myself, self-indulgence will take care of itself.
God, our Father, I want to be a real Christian. Reorient my repentance not around how I feel about myself but how I fail to love others. Forgive my sense of nobility in my efforts to “help” the poor. Instead lead me to love the poor. In fact, help me to see and love them not as “the poor” but as I love myself. In Jesus name, amen.
1. So how about it? Have you come to grips with the fact that you might be in the category of “the rich?” Will you consider that?
2. Do you understand how fighting against self-indulgence actually plays into self-indulgence’s greatest strategy—keeping the focus on ourselves?
3. Are you in real relationship with people living in poverty or otherwise in need? Not primarily as a benefactor, but as friends? What might it look like to move in that direction?
For the Awakening,