James 5:1–11comment (0)
October 3, 2013
By James Riley Strange
Related Scripture: James 5:1–11
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
The Pressure of Retaliation
I am writing this lesson Sept. 15, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of one of our sisters: 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham. It is appropriate to hear James’ words about endurance and to remind ourselves how Christians in Birmingham have borne witness to its power over the past half century. James 4:17 serves as a transition to today’s passage and should be read with it.
James’ condemnation of “you who are rich” picks up what he said in 1:9–11 and 2:1–6. Many Jewish groups called themselves “the poor,” meaning those who relied on God alone. Hence, outsiders were “the wealthy.” James adopts the same idea. Today’s wealthy Christians, however, run the risk of behaving like outsiders when they use wealth’s power to oppress. We should pay attention to James’ pointed words.
In 4:13–16 James said wealth is a gift from God (compare 1:17), lest we think we deserve it. Now he warns the oppressing wealthy not to covet their riches, for rather than giving us whatever we think wealth brings, riches will do the opposite when Jesus returns (see vv. 8 and 9). What we think brings security will rot and rust; what we hope will preserve us will eat away at us; what we want to free us and give us power will serve as evidence against us at our judgment. The word “treasure” in verse 3 must be ironic.
“The laborers” probably refers to James’ fellow Christians, whom nonbelievers are persecuting. James could literally be condemning those who defraud laborers, or he could be referring to any kind of oppression of the powerless metaphorically (see 2:6–7). As in James’ day, we wealthy believers should remember that we commit this sin when we follow our craving (see 1:14–16; 3:13–18; 4:1–10).
James writes to people who are closely connected to agriculture. “Early and late rains” (see Deut. 11:14; Jer. 5:24) refer to the seasonal rains in Israel that begin in October and end in April or early May. Farmers relied on them; hence, the entire society did too. Because drought endangers lives, every year people anticipated the start and end of the season with some anxiety.
Evidently anxiety about Jesus’ return caused some to complain about one another. See 3:1–12 and 4:11.
James frequently uses examples from figures of the past (compare 2:23–25; 5:17–18). Many of the biblical prophets famously suffered physical and emotional agony for speaking in the name of the Lord (Elijah, Jeremiah and Hosea are examples). We can recall examples of similar suffering by Christians in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama. “We call blessed” recalls 1:12.
James gave us the phrase, “the patience of Job.” “Endurance” is probably a better word because although Job endured, he was not such a patient fellow. Recall that, when asked to wait patiently for change, Martin Luther King Jr. often refused, all the while telling Civil Rights leaders to make their demands in love. James, who calls for patience, expected Jesus to return soon. King and others, on the other hand, anticipated a just society that James never envisioned.
Today’s lesson challenges. There are words of harsh condemnation for believers who act just like anyone else when we amass wealth (and Americans are very wealthy), and they remind us that in Alabama we still have work to do to erase hatred and social inequities. We do well to remember that James thinks little of belief unless deeds give it life (2:14–26; see especially 2:19). So let us continue to do the tasks that God has set before us.