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15 September 2017

The wealthy, their crimes, and their coming judgment.

On the misdeeds of the wealthy in James’s day.

James 5.1-8.

This next bit of James was directed to the specific people of James’s day.

Problem is, not every Christian has understood this. You know how we humans are; we wanna make everything about us. So we’ve looked at this passage and tried to figure out how it applies to us and the people of our day. Especially the people of our day, since rebuke and judgment are involved: We definitely want those bits to apply to other people.

Since James dropped a reference or two to Jesus’s second coming—an event which’ll take place at any time, a belief Christians have held since the beginning, and even Jesus’s first apostles watched out for it, as Jesus instructed—historically we’ve interpreted this bit as an End Times reference. It’s not really. In the New Testament, “the last days” doesn’t refer to the End Times, but the Christian Era. Ac 2.17, He 1.2 The “first days” were before Christ; the “last days” are after God’s kingdom has come near. As historians call ’em, BC and CE. And in these last days, we’re to live like the kingdom’s arrived—not like it hasn’t, and never will.

So when James rebuked the people of his church for living the same old lifestyle during “the last days,” he meant they weren’t acting as King Jesus’s followers should. Whether today or during the End Times. That should be our takeaway as well: If you’re wealthy, do try not to behave like these people.

And do try not to read this passage through your End Times filter. Read it for what it says.

James 5.1-8 KWL
1 Come now, wealthy Christians: Lament loudly about the sufferings which you’re going through.
2 Your wealth has decayed. Your clothes became moth-eaten.
3 Your gold and silver have tarnished. Their poison will be your testimony:
It’ll eat your flesh like fire. You stockpiled for the last days.
4 Look at the wages of the workers who reap your fields—withheld by you, so they cry out.
The reapers’ roar has entered the ear of the Lord of War.
5 You all lived comfortably, luxuriously, on the earth. You fed your hearts on the day of slaughter.
6 You all condemned, murdered the Righteous One, who doesn’t resist you.
7 So be patient, fellow Christians, till the Master’s second coming.
Look, the farmer awaits the land’s precious fruit,
patient about it till they can get early- and late-season rain.
8 Be patient yourselves as well. Strengthen your minds:
The Master’s second coming has come near.

Okay. In James’s day, the wealthy Christians in his community were suffering. In part because their wealth had come to nothing. And more suffering was coming—because they’d ethisavrísate/“accumulated wealth” (KJV “laid up treasure”) instead of doing what they were supposed to be doing with it: They weren’t paying their employees.

Some people use this verse to knock the rich in general; to promote a little class welfare. This isn’t about all the wealthy; it’s not James knocking the rich for being rich. James got on their case because their workers were suffering, and crying out to God. So this is a prophecy from James, who’d been told by the Holy Spirit why the wealthy in his church were losing their money: God was judging them for their evil.

Yes, evil. It’s against God’s Law to not pay your employees. In fact the Law stipulates we have to pay ’em the same day they worked. None of this saving up till payday, like we do nowadays.

Deuteronomy 24.14-15 KWL
14 Don’t tyrannize needy and poor employees,
whether relatives, or foreigners who live in your land or within your gates.
15 Give their wages that day. Don’t let the sun come down on them first.
For they’re poor. They carry their soul in their hands.
Don’t let them call the LORD about you, and let it be sin upon you.

The unpaid reapers Jm 5.4 had told God on their bosses. This triggered Kyríu Savaóth—which is a half-translation, half-transliteration of YHWH Chevaót/“the LORD of Armies” (KJV “LORD of hosts”), our God when he’s about to do battle. These people’s ruin was God’s judgment on their misdeeds.

In that day. Not in the End Times. God isn’t always gonna wait till the End to open up a can of whup-ass. The cycle of history happens over and over again for this very reason.

Hence if the wealthy exploit the poor in this generation, there’s every chance God may take away their wealth again. It may not be the End Times… but it’ll definitely feel like the End Times for these people.

No, your stockpile will not save you.

Years ago, one of my church’s elders told me about an End Times prognosticator who sent him a few dire predictions about the coming End. Then ended his tale of woe with a sales pitch for his survivalist supplies. Wanna buy a water-purification system? Some Meals-Ready-to-Eat? Got that bunker built into your backyard yet? (Anyone still have their bunkers left over from the Cold War?)

I informed him Jim Bakker, the 1980s televangelist who was sent to prison for overselling shares in his theme park, is currently pulling that very same scam. He’ll host every End Times nut on his TV show to rile up the viewers, then use their fear to sell them buckets of survivalist food. Others are telling people to convert their money to gold, lest governments collapse and money becomes worthless. Forgetting that in dire circumstances, gold and silver become worthless too. 2Ki 6.25

I’m not knocking disaster preparedness. If a hurricane hits, it’s a really good idea to have a week’s worth of canned goods and drinking water. But I know Christians who are planning to sit out years of tribulation, and that’s nothing new. People in James’s day expected to do so too. And in the year 70, great tribulation came to Jerusalem: The Romans destroyed it. How’d those wealthy people fare? They died the same as poor people.

What the wealthy should’ve done was lay up that treasure in heaven. Lk 12.33 Use your wealth to make friends. Pay your workers fairly. Give to the needy. Generate a lot of goodwill. ’Cause when the Romans came, such people’s servants would say, “Our boss was so good to us; we gotta save him at least.” Not “F--- that guy; let the Romans crucify him.”

That’s what happens in every revolution. Every invasion. Every time a hostile government decides to destroy its political enemies. Their wealth doesn’t save them. They rarely escape to a friendly country. More often they try to get to their money, and find it gone, or that it’s suddenly become very, very expensive to get anywhere. Suddenly they find they have to depend on the graciousness of the poor… and when they’ve spent their lives crapping on the poor, the poor tend not to be gracious at all.

Now, we don’t know when disaster will come, any more than we know when the End will come. Still need to be prepared for it.

Evil people don’t always die from evil causes. Ec 7.15 But history’s demonstrated that often powerful evil people do. Either because people wanna take revenge, or stop their evil quickly, or covet their power and want ’em out of the way.

Remember, James’s day is the same as Jesus’s day. Many of Jerusalem’s upper class were the very same senators who sat in on Jesus’s trial, declared him guilty, and got the Romans to crucify him. We don’t know how many of ’em—if any of them—repented and came to follow Jesus. We do know many of ’em oppressed Christians. And, taking advantage of the usual Pharisee loopholes which let ’em bend the Law, they underpaid their employees, and spent the money they stole on their comforts. The people cried out to God, and God did repay.

Back to the present day: Jesus intends to upend our status quo. If you’re wealthy, you often have a lot invested in that status quo. When you throw in your lot with such people, adopt their policies against the poor, keep wages low and profits high, and justify it however you do, you’ve thrown in your lot with a kingdom Jesus is overthrowing. You’ve picked the wrong side. Doesn’t matter how Christian you pretend to be.

When God gives us wealth, it’s to help the needy. It’s to be Jesus to people, and bring them the good news. Lk 4.17-19 It’s not so we can create luxury accommodations for ourselves, whether aboveground during peace, or underground during tribulation. God wants us to love our neighbors with those riches—his riches. Speculation and stockpiling is what people do when they don’t care what God wants… and think they can cleverly outmaneuver the future, instead of trusting God to take care of it.

Be patient till the second coming.

Though James believed Jesus could return at any time, he didn’t know when it’d happen. Nobody does but the Father. Mk 13.32 So James couldn’t say, “My brother’ll return any day now and deal with you”—he didn’t know when his brother’d return. It’s near—it’s always near—but he didn’t know when. Nobody does.

James used the analogy of a farmer who’s looking forward to the crops—

James 5.7-8 KWL
7 So be patient, fellow Christians, till the Master’s second coming.
Look, the farmer awaits the land’s precious fruit,
patient about it till they can get early- and late-season rain.
8 Be patient yourselves as well. Strengthen your minds:
The Master’s second coming has come near.

Jesus used a number of harvest metaphors in his parables. The farmer had to practice patience. Ancient farmers didn’t use the irrigation systems we do now; they expected the land and the rain to water their crops naturally. They prayed for the nearby river to overflow, or prayed for rain. Sometimes they got desperate when they didn’t figure the LORD was doing anything, so they resorted to the Baals. They didn’t only follow pagan gods for the sex stuff.

Ancient farming is therefore a good example of the sort of daily patience we Christians gotta practice in waiting for Jesus’s return. We know it’s inevitable. But we gotta watch for it. Pray about it. Stop making ourselves crazy and desperate in awaiting it, and resort to buying survivalist buckets, or interpreting every little news item like there’s some hidden End Times clues within it. Do what we oughta be doing, which is work on God’s kingdom. That’s why God gives us his resources: Not to stockpile, but to bless, and grow his kingdom.

Certain dispensationalists in the Pentecostal movement have taken the “early- and late-season rain” part, and stretched it into a belief system about how God turned off the miracles in the first century, then turned ’em back on in the 20th. Thus the early church was the “early rain,” the present-day church the “latter rain,” and inbetween these times the Holy Spirit sat on his hands. Christian history says otherwise, but these “latter rain Pentecostals” don’t know church history, or don’t believe it ’cause it’s “too Catholic.”

Obviously they’re reading their movement into James’s words—which aren’t about them, but like I said, we humans do that. It totally takes James out of context. And the idea of a 19-century gap in the Holy Spirit’s activity likely would’ve horrified him: We can’t even follow his letter without the Holy Spirit! Without him, there’s absolutely no way to develop patience and endurance. We need the Spirit if we’re ever gonna produce his fruit.

Nope. We’re to strengthen our minds, not lose ’em in worry, fear, connect-the-dots interpretations of the End, schemes, plots, End Times timelines, or any other time-wasters. Be about your Father’s business. Love your neighbor. And pay your employees.