The Peril of Self-Indulgence
Passage: James 5:2–5:6
Sermon from James 5:1-6 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on August 21, 2016
These are not easy words to hear. James continues his twin rebukes to rich people in particular. Today’s rebuke comes with a heavy emphasis on judgment, the condemnation of those living in self-indulgence. Let’s begin reading from verses 1-6…
1Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4Behold, 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. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
As I’ve said before, the contents of this letter suggest that two kinds of rich people are present in their gatherings, Christian and non-Christian (Jas 1:9-10, 27; 2:1-7, 16; 4:3, 10; 5:1-6). You just have to discern which rich people are being addressed more directly in each context. And even when one or the other is being addressed more directly, the message still applies to everybody indirectly—we’ll see that soon enough.
James now addresses unrighteous rich people directly.[i] They seem to be the same group he alluded to back in 2:6-7—the oppressive rich people of the world, who take advantage of the poor for selfish gain. Now, some folks will tell you that James is opposed to rich people, period; and there can be no such thing as a wealthy Christian. A wealthy Christian, they will say, is an oxymoron, because he must not be taking up his cross in some way. You get this in some of the liberation theology circles.
Wealth Is A Good Gift But Dangerous
But the Bible has several examples of wealthy Christians, who use their wealth rightly to glorify God and love their neighbor. We can think of those who sold their houses and lands to provide for others in Acts 2:45 (cf. Acts 4:34), or Phoebe who was a “patron of many” (Rom 16:2). We can even listen to what Paul says to rich believers in 1 Timothy 6:17-18, and it’s not that you shouldn’t be wealthy. Rather he says, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy…they are to be generous and ready to share…”
The issue is not wealth per se. Wealth is a good gift from God. The issue is the abuse of wealth for selfish gain. The issue is finding your worth and ultimate happiness in wealth, which we’ll see is the issue James is dealing with here.
At the same time, the New Testament is also clear that wealth is dangerous. We are prone—especially in the Western world where we swim in affluence—to love it and trust in it and treasure it in the place of God and serve it like a master without even knowing it (Matt 6:24; 1 Tim 6:9-10). We like the comfort and security it can provide and the power to buy whatever we may want from time to time. Jesus said, “It’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:23-24). That should sober those of us living in such an affluent culture.
So wealth is a good gift from the Lord—we should give thanks for it and enjoy it (1 Tim 6:17). It’s also meant to be used for his glory and to serve our neighbors in need—that’s why any of us have it (Ps 67; 1 Tim 6:18). But wealth is also dangerous. James is speaking to those who have fallen prey to the dangers of wealth. They’re serving wealth as a slave to his master, and not honoring God or loving their neighbor.
Sounding the Alarm of Judgment
So James sounds an alarm for these kinds of people. Verse 1, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” This cry—weep and howl—is reminiscent of the prophets of old. The cry regularly came in the context of pending judgment (Isa 13:6; 14:31; 23:1, 6, 14; Joel 1:5; Zech 11:2). It’s the cry of agony and utter despair of the sinner exposed before God’s holy presence; and there’s nothing they can do to escape his condemnation.
The “miseries” that accompany condemnation are numerous, and some of them he mentions here. For instance, they will suffer the misery of shameful exposure. Verse 3, “their corrosion will be evidence [or a witness] against you.” James has been very clear that judgment day will be a day when we give an account of our works. The books will be opened before all, and our works will be evidence of whether we knew Jesus or didn’t (Jas 2:12-13). In this case, judgment day will expose the folly of treasuring worldly possessions over Jesus.
Another misery in verse 3 is that the possessions they thought would bring them comfort will end up “eating their flesh like fire.” Not exactly fire as we know it, but they will experience something like fire. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 speak of the Lord Jesus being “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The misery includes punishment, a gnawing, stinging experience in the flesh that just won’t leave you alone (cf. Isa 66:24; Mark 9:48).
Verse 5 also calls it “a day of slaughter.” Some take this to reflect the state of the poor—they’re being “slaughtered” by the rich. But in light of the common thread of final judgment and the return of Christ throughout chapter 5, and in light of the rich being depicted as the fattened livestock to be slaughtered, it better reflects the approaching Day of Judgment (cf. Ezek 21:10-12). The prophets would call God’s judgment a day of slaughter (e.g., Isa 30:25; Zech 11:4, 7). The one who stands so proudly on his wealth—the Lord will cut him down, and that day is already in process of dawning upon them.
I grew up along the coast, just on the north side of Corpus Christi. We had the same kinds of sirens that Fort Worth has for tornadoes, only ours were usually for hurricanes. The siren would go off as the hurricane was coming ashore. Similarly, these words are a siren call for unrighteous rich people. God is soon coming ashore like a hurricane in judgment, and we have no chance of survival if we live the way that these rich people are living.
Even we as believers need to see that there’s a way of living that leads only to misery. And we need to know what that way of life looks like, in order to avoid it. We’re not immune to loving our wealth or misusing our wealth. We’ve already seen James rebuke rich Christians elsewhere for puffing themselves up. How much more should this word serve the Christian’s repentance?! We need to see the real dangers involved.
But also, poor Christians who are so often oppressed by the wealthy—they too need to hear this message of judgment. This message should give them hope that God does see their oppression, and God does hear their cries, and he will respond with justice.[ii] More on that in a little bit…
The Way of Living that Leads to Judgment
But for now, let’s look at the way these rich people are living—the way these rich people view their wealth, the way they’re neglecting their neighbor—that puts them on the road to misery under God’s condemnation. We can make four observations about their way of life that we also want to avoid…
1. Hoarding Earthly Treasures
Number one, they are hoarding earthly treasures. To be clear, this is different from prudent saving so as not to burden others unnecessarily (cf. Prov 6:6-8; 21:20). Hoarding has to do with that insatiable desire to accumulate more and more and more wealth, because God is not your treasure, and God is not your security, and heaven with Christ is not your home but earth is, and so forth.
Listen to verses 2-3, “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.”
We all live in the time-frame of what the Bible calls, “the last days.” The last days stretch from Jesus’ first coming in humility to Jesus’ second coming in glory. James is teaching us how to view our wealth as we live in these days after Jesus’ first coming but before Jesus’ second coming. Jesus’ second coming will evaluate whether we treated our wealth the way Jesus taught us by his first coming.
And he had a whole lot to say about our wealth in his first coming. He even embodied what we should think of our wealth: “He who was rich became poor for our sake, that we by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). He sacrificed it all to see others saved and rich with God. He embodied unlimited, open-handed generosity. We don’t have time to cover all the teaching flowing from that grace, but there are some things Jesus taught that help us understand what James is saying here.
I’m thinking in particular of Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy [sound familiar?] and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If our heart treasures heaven with Christ, then we won’t accumulate treasures on earth as if earth is all there is. Rather, we’ll lay up treasure in heaven, treasure that won’t corrode. But what does that look like?
Luke 12:33-34 tell us: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Same teaching, but he now identifies how we do this. According to Jesus, laying up treasure in heaven has to do with identifying needs here on earth and using your possessions to meet them. It has to do with so treasuring Jesus and what he is like for us, that we give away our wealth for the sake of those in need.
That’s the opposite of what these rich people are doing. They’re not learning from Jesus’ first coming. They’re laying up treasures on earth in the last days, and are not using them to serve the needy. And from the perspective of God’s coming judgment and the fleeting nature of these last days, their riches are already rotting. They’re already rotting and corroding, because they’re not being used for God’s purposes.
Now, the world doesn’t see that. But God sees it, and that’s all that matters. He says they’re already rotted, moth-eaten, and corroded. Basically, whenever you don’t use your wealth for heavenly purposes—meeting the needs of others, showing hospitality, advancing the gospel, and so forth—they begin corroding in God’s eyes. And on the last day, their corrosion will be evidence that you didn’t use them in a way that pointed others to Jesus. You hoarded them for yourself instead of using them for others.
Saving becomes hoarding when we have an insatiable desire for more wealth and when we’re not sharing any of the wealth to meet needs for Christ’s sake. Hoarding happens whenever God chooses to prosper me, and I keep raising my standard of living instead of raising my standard of giving.[iii]
It’s when we become like the man who thought that one’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions. Even though he had plenty, he kept building bigger barns to store all his grain and his goods, so that he could relax, eat, drink, and be merry. And God said to him, “You fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The criticism is not that he was a successful, wealthy farmer; the criticism is that he used it all for himself. Let us be careful not to hoard earthly treasures; misery awaits those who do.
2. Treating Neighbor Unjustly
A second observation: they’re treating their neighbors unjustly. Verse 4, “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.” There’s some Old Testament background to this.
James is big on interpreting the love command for the church. Again and again he has taken us back to the command to love our neighbor (2:8; 4:12). And here again we find another application of it. In Leviticus 19—same chapter of the love command—we get this in verse 13: “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning.”
A further expansion on this command comes in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”
Now, things are a little different today in terms of the economy and how we do payroll, but the overriding principle is clear: love for neighbor demands that an employer pay his employee on time and with integrity, so that people aren’t put in a bind by the employer’s laziness and greed. Love watches out for the needs of others, and that applies to employers paying their workers.
These rich people are not loving the neighbors working for them. They’re keeping their wages back by fraud. Verse 5 clarifies that the fraud is related to holding back what is due the laborers, so that the rich landowners can live in luxury.
But let’s stop there and ponder this for a minute. We have to admit that our capitalist society differs from James’ context. But perhaps one area where we see something quite similar is when businesses—and sadly sometimes even professing Christian businessmen—they get away with just paying people the ‘going rate’ at the time without ever considering whether that ‘going rate’ is just and adequately meets the needs of those working for them.[iv] In other words, it’s not just a matter of showing charity to the poor worker in need, but doing all people justice, especially the poor.
Or, recently, a number of people around town have had their roofs replaced because of the hail damage a while back. But I’ve been amazed at how little people care whether the men who will be working on their roofs are getting a fair wage. They’re more concerned with how little they’ll have to pay. They want the roofer to save them the cash without caring how that might affect those putting the roof on. James will not allow us to aim for the cheapest labor to ensure we make the greatest profit; we must aim for what is just. Yes, some things are out of our control. But let’s do what we can to promote justice.
We could all point to other ways where these sorts of injustices are present in society, especially in the way people so easily take advantage of the poor. But let’s return to our passage and note this: wherever injustice is present, the Lord knows it. It’s very characteristic of the Lord to stick up for the oppressed, to come to the aid of the helpless. He sees their oppression and will bring about justice for them.
3. Spending Life in Self-Indulgence
Number three: the rich are spending life in self-indulgence. Verse 5, “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” Here’s what happens when your heart is greedy, when it treasures earthly possessions over Christ: you burden others or let burdens remain to indulge yourself.
Luxury is a term often relative to time and the cultures we live in and the economy that we’re a part of. Air conditioning and refrigeration may not be considered a luxury in the US, but it’s certainly a luxury when compared to other parts of the world. So sometimes it’s hard to determine, and also really dangerous when so much luxury in our culture is equated with necessity.
But when we place it alongside the idea of self-indulgence, it’s pretty clear what he’s talking about: you’re living well beyond a modest lifestyle of contentment (1 Tim 6:6-8) and using all your excess to surround yourself with more earthly pleasures and more hobbies instead of using them to serve others. Again, it’s like the man who had all he needed and then some, but then built bigger barns to have more for himself.
Same with the rich here—they have the means to help and support others, but instead they spend it on excessive personal consumption.[v] Elsewhere the Bible calls this covetousness or greediness or idolatry. You don’t have mastery over your possessions; your possessions have mastery over you. The irony is that when we live to pamper ourselves now, we will only get misery later.
4. Oppressing the Righteous
Finally, number four: they’re oppressing the righteous one. Back in 2:6, James asked this question: “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” So imagine a court scene with me. And the court is run by the wealthy. And the wealthy court people have relationships with the wealthy land people—they both scratch each other’s backs, and control society. And they’re dragging their people into court without any just accusation.
That’s where verse 6 comes in: “you have condemned and murdered the righteous person.” So he’s not just poor and oppressed; he’s also innocent—not innocent before God, of course, but innocent before other people. They’re condemning an innocent man. And he’s also not doing anything about it: “he does not resist you.” He has every right to resist but he chooses not to. Huh? A poor, oppressed, innocent man, unjustly condemned and murdered. That sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
These poor are being treated just like Jesus Christ was treated. I take the poor here to be the Christian poor. They’re praying in verse 4. These are the poor that love God and that God is pleased to give the kingdom to back in 2:5. They’re poor, oppressed, innocent, and the rich people are finagling the justice system to condemn them. These poor are following in the footsteps of Jesus (cf. 1 Pet 2:20-22). He was poor, oppressed, innocent—and his innocence was not just innocence before men, he was also innocent before God—and the elites of society finagled the justice system to condemn and murder him.
In other words, when the rich oppress the poor for their own self-indulgence, it exposes them as Messiah-killers. They stand as guilty ones who crucified Jesus, the Lord of glory. They do not bow to his glory, they buy for their own glory. They deserve judgment ultimately because they hate Jesus and his people.
Some Final Exhortations
So those are four observations about these rich non-Christians. The way they’re living now will lead to their eternal misery later. We might put them all together like this: people who love earthly treasures will burden and oppress others to indulge themselves, all of which exemplifies their hatred of Jesus. So, where do we go from here? Let me mention four closing exhortations…
To begin, if you’re a rich non-Christian—maybe, after hearing these things, you just now realized that you’re not a Christian. You treasure the same things these rich people treasure and you live just like they live. Listen, there is still hope. The last days aren’t over yet. Forsake your selfish ambitions and turn to Christ.
God has sounded the alarm of your judgment. If you continue as you are, you will die in eternal misery. The reason that Jesus laid down his life as an innocent man is so that all of your sin would be forgiven. If you trust in him—and you take him at his word—you will not perish in eternal misery—God will save you from destruction.
There is a place in his kingdom for rich people who have abused their wealth. I used to be one of them. I loved making money. I loved spending it on my tractor and my hunting and my boat—and I just wanted more and more. But then God opened my eyes to the treasure of Christ. It was in seeing him that I saw my folly. God rescued me. And he can rescue you, and make you one who lives in open-handed generosity for Christ’s sake. Come to him this morning. Tell your rich friends to come to him. Judgment day is drawing near and Christ is too glorious to ignore.
Next, if you’re a Christian, use your wealth to serve your neighbor and do him justice. The wealth we have is a gift from God. And as we saw, it exists to serve people, our neighbors. Those neighbors can be really close, like our family; they can be a little further out, like our church; and they can be even further out, like other local people in our city or global needs like southern Louisiana right now.[vi]
But whoever they are, we must see our wealth as a means of serving them and doing them justice. That requires educating ourselves on wealth, putting a budget in place with biblical priorities. It involves asking gospel-centered questions and thinking strategically, so that our purchases show off the value of Jesus and meet the needs of others. Look for needs. Don’t just wait for them to come to you. And then, to the best of your ability, help to meet those needs. We can also make greater strides in educating ourselves on the companies we do business with. Ask the roofer if the guys are being paid a fair wage. Support public policies that are honest and treat people rightly. Speak up when you see your department hiding numbers from the IRS instead of doing things above board. If you employ somebody, give them what’s right, not just the ‘going rate’ is that ‘going rate’ is wrong.[vii]
Third, guard yourself from the love of money by treasuring the glory of Christ. The Puritan Thomas Manton said, “There is not a vice which more effectually contracts and deadens the feelings, which more completely makes a man’s affections centre in himself and excludes all others from partaking in them, than the desire of accumulating possessions.” Let this warning today turn you away from any want that will dull your affections for Jesus Christ. He is the truly glorious one and worth infinitely more than all we have. Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It’s only by seeing more of Jesus’ worth that all of the earthly luxuries will lose their luster.
Lastly, if you’re among the righteous oppressed in the world who love God—take heart that God knows the injustice being done to you and he will bring justice. Your responsibility is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. First Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Knowing that God will judge evildoers frees you to love and sacrifice with patience.
That doesn’t mean you must remain silent in the church. If you see any kind of oppression in the church, or any ways that we can do justice for our neighbor, you need to know that you have an open ear with the elders or any of the members here. We want to make sure that we are doing justice and not contributing in any way to the oppression of others. We want to be a community where wealth is used rightly.
But when the world oppresses you and takes advantage of you, this is your opportunity to set before them a picture of the Righteous One, Jesus, who trusted God to judge. You don’t have to take matters into your own hands. You can rest assured by this promise here that God will right all wrongs. Verse 4 even says that he hears your cries. He will vindicate his people and deal with their enemies appropriately. This is why James will say in 5:7, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.”
[i]That he’s speaking to rich non-Christians seems evident from the following observations: (1) their seems to be a transition from “brothers” in 4:11 to the rich in 4:13-5:6 back to the “brothers” in 5:7; (2) the exhortation for the “brothers” to be patient in 5:7 seems to be an exhortation to the oppressed Christian, forming a contrast with the previous section where the rich are being so oppressive; (3) the folks in 5:1-6 seem to resemble the rich already described in 2:6-7 who blaspheme Christ’s name; (4) James appears to anticipate the condemnation of these rich people (Jas 5:2, 5). Either way, the message is still just as relevant for the rich Christian.
[ii]In a lot of ways, James’ condemnation of the rich here functions carries the same edge that we see in the oracles against the nations in the Old Testament prophets. The prophets would sound the alarm of judgment against the nations so that God’s people wouldn’t follow their ways and so that those oppressed by the nations would have hope.
[iii]An allusion to Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2001), 75: “God prospers me not to raise my standard of living, but to raise my standard of giving.”
[iv]Tim Keller, “The Gospel and the Poor,” 13. Accessed through http://www.togetherforadoption.org/wp-content/media/thegospelandthepooroutline.pdf.
[v]Blomberg, James, 224n40.
[vi]The closer the neighbors are to us, the greater our responsibility to meet their needs (e.g., 1 Tim 5:8; Gal 6:6, 10).
[vii]Keller, “The Gospel and the Poor,” 13: “Doug Moo points out in his James commentary that in the first century the gap between rich and poor was widening. ‘Small farmers’ increasingly could not make ends meet and hired themselves out to the large landowners who were becoming more and more powerful. They were in a position to pay workers very poorly, often refusing to pay them for their last few days of work. There was nothing the workers could do about it. The landowners could offer such low wages because that what the market could bear. What makes this outcry interesting is that James is not simply complaining that the elites were not generous enough in their charity (though that is implied in the statement about their living in luxury). Rather, he condemns them in the strongest terms by simply paying the workmen the going rate at a time when the ‘going rate’ was practically inadequate for the needs of poor families. The current local economy was, therefore, unjust. James is not condemning them only for a lack of mercy but for a lack of justice.”
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
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October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance