Pastor Dave had the singularly uncomfortable job of preaching from James 5:1-6 on Sunday. It’s a good text to preach when one is on furlough raising support, but it just doesn’t come as easily when on the mission field, especially in rural East Africa. The title in my Bible says “Warning to the Rich.”
It’s tough to preach this to a congregation when to one side of the church building you can look out and see a village made of sticks and mud and grass, and on the other side of the church, you look out to see the pastor’s house—pick any house on the mission, really—cement walls, glass windows, and a brand new tin roof shining in the sun . But if the Karamojong look to us as being rich, it’s just as easy for us to look across the ocean to see friends and neighbors who have much more than we do (really, a vehicle for every person in the family, come on!). Up and up the ladder goes. If you showed an issue of Architectural Digest to a Karamojong, it would probably blow their mind. So, who is really rich, and who is really poor and what does James really mean?
Dave hit upon the heart of what James is saying by explaining that the people in mind are not just rich but corrupt. Not only are they trusting in their riches rather than in God’s providence (see the end of chapter 4), but in this case, they are storing up wealth at the expense of the poor. Further, they are storing up their treasure in the last days. They know that the judgement of God is coming, that the kingdom is near, and they have acted unjustly anyway. They have flouted the law of God, thinking that they would escape from God’s wrath.
This interpretation comes as a great relief because I’m sure that it does not appertain to me. As far as I can remember, I’ve never withheld the wages from anyone laboring in my fields. I haven’t murdered anyone righteous (in the strict sense). On the other hand, if we take the words of G. K. Chesterton seriously that anyone rich is already corrupt, we’re suddenly forced to prick up our ears again. I don’t think Chesterton would be dogmatic on that point, but I think what he is getting at is that there is a corruption innate in all of us because of sin. All of us by our nature seek to take advantage, seek our own gain at the expense of others. Earthly riches simply empower us to bring this corruption to fruition.
And so James speaks to all of us, even poor missionaries (and poorer congregation), calling us to account for our actions. It is so easy for us to use our high position in society as well as our (seemingly) vast economic resources to our sole benefit. In my own heart, I see the tendency toward corruption. If there is a disagreement over wages, it is supremely simple to send the aggrieved party away without hearing his complaint. When someone asks for a favor, I can wave my hand and he is silenced. To the Karamojong, I am a “big man,” and my judgement leaves them with little recourse. To abuse this station is sin that we must always be on guard against, especially as emissaries of the kingdom of Christ. He who took on the humility and form of a servant has promised us that as often as we regard those in need, we have honored and served Christ himself. As often as we have failed to do so, though, James has a different message—woe to us in these, the last days.