James About Rich and Poor
The Author of the Letter
When we read and reflect on the relatively short letter of James, we quickly come to the conclusion that the author deals with topics that are very much related to the topic of this book.
The author introduces himself to the readers as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). In the New Testament we encounter several people by this name. Not everyone is agreed on the question of which James is to be identified with the individual in the salutation of this letter. L. Floor argues that the available data “point convincingly to James the brother of Jesus”. He shows the parallels between the address of this James in Acts 15 and the content of the letter of James. Already from about the second century it has been commonly accepted that the author is James, the brother of Jesus. In all fairness though, even at that time there already existed some doubt about this. The differences of opinion continued throughout the ages. We concur with the viewpoint that the author of this book of the Bible is James, the brother of Jesus.
James, the “‘brother of the Lord”, was no apostle. E.L. Smelik draws attention to the fact that his position nevertheless was put on equal level with apostleship. He refers to Paul’s words in Galatians 1:19, “But [in Jerusalem] I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother.”
A Contentious Letter
Objections have often been raised that the letter of James contains so little about Christ. However, this does not take away the fact that at the end of the fourth century this book of the Bible was generally recognized as belonging to the canon. Luther’s position in regard to this letter is well known: the letter of James is to him “an epistle of straw”. And yet the reformer did not plead for removing this book from the list of canonical books. It is true that the name of Christ is not often mentioned in this letter, but it does get mentioned, in quite a powerful way! In 2:1 James writes, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” F.W. Grosheide notes that the use of the full name of Christ, “Lord of glory”, constitutes a confession. He continues, “It appears from this that the letter of James takes the exact same position in regard to the Saviour as do the other books of the New Testament. Jesus is the Saviour who now enjoys the glory.”
It is clear that the letter of James has its own unique character in comparison to the other epistles of the New Testament. Calvin gives an outright positive assessment of this letter. In regard to the books of the Bible he wrote among other things, “It may certainly not be expected that all deal with the same subject. Diversity does not mean that we accept the one and reject the other.” This letter, according to Calvin, contains “much instruction of which the benefit for all of our Christian life becomes evident”. Kohlbrügge even calls this letter “a golden jewel”. The unique character of this book has to do with the situation in which the original recipients found themselves. P. Rosseneu is of the opinion that this letter displays a very admonishing character. The problem of those who are addressed is not that they do not know “in whom they must believe, but rather the fact of how they experience their faith and how their expression of it shows serious shortcomings and aberrations”.
Therefore we cannot maintain that there is an essential and foundational contrast between Paul and James. Paul argues against dead works. The starting point with James is a dead faith. He warns and argues against the inability to control the tongue, against mutual quarreling, against the sins of the rich, and against the fact that people make plans without taking God into account. James strongly urges his readers to be doers of the word. Grosheide notes that James immediately connects to the initial preaching: “Repent — for the kingdom of heaven has come near you”.
In the Belgic Confession, in article 4, the letter of James is included with the canonical books of Holy Scripture. Article 5 of this confession continues right away with: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.”
In 1:1 we read, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion: greetings.”
The words “the twelve tribes” may indicate that the addressed Christians have a Jewish origin. They are in the “diaspora”. We may assume that they live in Palestine and in certain parts of Syria. After the execution of Stephen we read that many Christians were scattered (see Acts 8:1). The fact that some serious admonitions will be pronounced does not prevent James to yet call these readers “brothers” or even “beloved brothers”. Quite correctly L. Floor writes that these brothers are fellow-Christians, both men as well as women. James builds a bridge to his readers. Admonitions and stimulations will only have the proper effect in the church of Christ when brothers and sisters take good care of each other.
By means of this letter we too are addressed, right here in our own circumstances. We too are shown the way in regards to money and possessions. Therefore let us now pay attention to some parts of this letter.
Wealth is Very Temporary!
In verses 2 through 11 of the first chapter of James’ letter the subject matter is trials and temptations. Suffering can be a serious trial, but this holds true also for prosperity by which a person can be enticed to sin and by which he is drawn away from God. However, God can use such trials to purify our faith. When a trial results in this, it implies joy. In this manner a trial can lead to perseverance of faith and to living one’s life according to God’s revealed will. Wisdom is required for this, along with proper insight. God grants this wisdom as an answer to prayer. However, the person needs to pray in faith and he should not doubt. If there is no faith there is no connection with God, and we will not receive the wisdom requested by prayer.
In the framework of trials James also writes about the lowly brother and the rich person.
In the Old Testament we read that God is concerned with the poor and the sojourners. God’s people too need to show care for them. God’s laws clearly point to this. The Lord Jesus pays much attention to the poor. He warns the rich against the dangers that can accompany wealth. This is the case especially in the Gospel according to Luke. Among other passages we can think of the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21).
When James writes in the first chapter of his letter about the rich and poor, it is very likely that this is connected with a particular historical situation. Especially after the fall of Jerusalem there existed a stark contrast between the poor and the rich. L. Floor writes that we do not need to doubt that here “we gain some insight into the social circumstances of the community addressed by James’ letter”. At the bottom of the social ladder were the poor farmworkers. The aristocracy and the large landowners were positioned at the top. Between these two extremes was some sort of middle class; artisans and civil servants, amongst others, belonged to it.
What does this situation have in common with the trials that are dealt with in James 1? The poor is here identified as “brother”. This poor, lowly brother can easily fall into the temptation of jealousy. It can embitter his life and have the result that he has no eye for anything else but those things that he is missing out on, and that he would so dearly love to possess. Because of this he can become discouraged and suffer depression. He may wonder what he actually represents, and question the value of his life. James calls the lowly to boast in his exaltation (1:9). He is still a brother, a child of his heavenly Father. With him he is held in high regard. He needs to be conscious of his high position with God. Jesus allows the poor to see their exalted state: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). That is what may cause the poor to rejoice. This is their glory.
And next we look at the rich. The word “brother” is not used here. Does it here concern only the rich outside of the church? I believe that we may assume that the rich in the congregation are being addressed as well. The great trial for the rich is that they begin to regard their possessions as the foundation of their lives, or that they show pride in their position. With imagery derived from Isaiah 40:6-8, James shows how money and possessions are only temporal matters. Grass and flowers of the field are used as examples of the transitoriness of wealth and of our earthly existence. They disappear quickly. Let the rich therefore boast in his humility before God, for the rich with all his enterprises shall fade away.
By writing this, James beaks through the generally accepted image of rich and poor in society.
Lowly brother and sister: boast in your exaltation before God!
Rich brother and sister: boast in your humility before God!
In this manner both the lowly and the rich are placed before God’s face at the place where they belong. That is how they may escape their trials. They can go their way with sure steps. In this way they are not like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
Must we conclude on the basis of this passage that Scripture suggests that there may not be any inequality of possessions? As if wealth only means a curse and no blessing? This is definitely not the case in the scope of the biblical message. Several times we read how God blesses people with possessions and respect. It does hold true, however, what G. Brillenburg Wurth says, namely that it is not fitting in God’s order to allow harrowing contrasts in regard to our possessions “as they currently continue to exist in our society”.
Not Showing Partiality
The way we deal with the poor and the rich within the congregation is addressed by James in a very clear and powerful way in chapter 2:1-13. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” To display discrimination is hurtful to the position that believers have. For they serve the Lord of glory. James pictures an imagined situation that may not have played out in actual fact. Yet taking into consideration the circumstances in which the believers find themselves, it could have taken place. The congregation has gathered together and a guest enters. Maybe he is an influential official. On one of his fingers he wears a heavy gold ring, likely a symbol of his high position. He wears expensive clothing. There is a stir in the congregation. With much deference the guest is shown the best place. Then another guest, a poor man, shabbily dressed, enters as well. “You stand over there,” he is told, or if he is allowed to sit, it is somewhere on a humble bench.
James fulminates passionately against this! This is impossible within the church of God. We may not discriminate on such improper grounds for then we act as judges applying wrong standards.
God deigns the poor to be rich in faith. The poor who put their faith in God are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven. In addition, it is especially the unbelieving rich who are out to harm the believers. They drag them before the courts. In doing so, they blaspheme the Name of the Lord, which was pronounced over these poor people when they were baptized. When it concerns the relationship between the poor and the rich, the congregation needs to observe the royal law: the law of love, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” We cannot say that showing partiality concerns only a part of the law. We can indeed distinguish various commandments in God’s law, but we cannot separate them from each other. Together they form the law of one and the same God. When you fail in one point, you are sinning against the entire law. James does not instigate any discrimination of the rich. He warns against contempt for the poor within Christ’s church. This is not simply a matter of secondary importance. As we read in verse 13, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.”
No Kind Words Without Christian Deeds!
James raises the issue of the position of the poor in yet another connection. In 2:14 he rejects an assertion that can in no way be allowed to stand. Someone claims he has faith, while the deeds or fruits of faith are lacking altogether. This person deems it is not necessary to put his faith into practice. With an example James makes it clear that the idea that you can believe without performing the deeds that belong to such faith, is altogether an untenable position. That kind of “faith” avails nothing. It is a dead faith. He illustrates the folly of such an idea as follows: we meet a member of the church who lacks the most basic elements. There is no food in his house and he is dressed inadequately. With apparent kind words this person gets a greeting of peace, along with the advice to dress well and to enjoy a good meal. However, no clothing is provided, nor any food for him to eat. The pious greeting and the best wishes are nothing but empty words and empty gestures. James presupposes a situation, and although it is only an illustration, this presumption will not be entirely free from a sense of reality. James is furious: it is a dead faith! Remarkably harsh words! But they express clearly how serious an offense it is to leave the poor out in the cold in this way.
Heavenly Wisdom Contrasted With Greed
In connection with our topic, the ending of chapter 3 also has something important to say to us. It deals with wisdom. Wisdom is also needed when one is called to occupy the office of a teacher. In this framework too it is spoken about the behavioural pattern of the believer. There is an attitude that has a poisonous source, because it is earthly, unspiritual and demonic. Greed fits with such an illusion of wisdom. It is not the wellbeing of the neighbour, inclusive of the poor, that is envisaged. All zeal, whether religious in nature or not, is only aimed at someone’s ego. Over against this stands the true wisdom: the wisdom from above, coming down from God (F.W. Grosheide). Of this wisdom it is true particularly that it is full of mercy and filled with good fruit.
Here again the compassion for the neighbour comes into view. Heavenly wisdom is characterized by aiming to serve the interests of the neighbour. Anyone who thinks, speaks and acts like this, from the source of heavenly wisdom, exercises righteousness. It is rather revealing that in the last verse of this periscope dealing with heavenly wisdom we read about righteousness: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Indictment against the rich
Finally we pay attention also to James 5:1-6. This section is a sharp accusation against some specific rich people. In light of God’s Word, wealth is not something to be ashamed of. The rich are not at all declared guilty simply on the basis that they are rich. Here it concerns the rich who came into their possessions in a criminal way and who continue to keep this up. They use their money the wrong way and they oppress and exploit those who work for them. This section reminds us of various prophecies of the Old Testament. Within this limited scope we will not get into the question whether it concerns here the rich within or outside of the church. In any case, James is dealing here with the well-to-do who behave in a disgraceful manner. In harsh words they are warned about the coming judgment. They need to weep and howl for the miseries that will come upon them. The wealth, with which they thought they had secured their future, has rotted away. Moths have eaten the expensive garments with which they showed off and which in that time also served as an investment. Precious metals, gold and silver, do not literally rust or corrode. Yet the imagery indicates that the possessions they had deemed untouchable have now become worthless. These illegally gained goods will testify against them, for it is no small matter what crimes they have committed. The wages of the drudging labourers had been kept back by fraud. “But,” says God, “this will not bring them prosperity. It calls out to me. It penetrates into my ears, together with the complaints of those to whom so much injustice was committed.” The rich lived lavishly at the cost of those they exploited. In this way they made themselves ripe for their judgment. We can add to this that many of these rich people had either been judges themselves or that they were in a position to influence them through rich bribes. So they are guilty themselves of the unjust verdicts they made, sometimes even of the murder of the righteous.
The poor had no means of defense. There was no protection against this jurisprudence. God pronounces a harsh accusation against those among the rich who abused their position of right, or who gained their wealth in an illegal and unjust way. He sticks up for the one who was treated unfairly, for the poor who was unjustly condemned.
We arrive at a summarizing conclusion. Even though it was brief, attention has been given to some important parts of James’ letter that concern the relationship between the rich and the poor.
- The dominant thought of that time in terms of the rich and the poor is breached.
The lowly brother and sister need to boast in their exaltation before God.
The rich needs to boast in his humiliation before God. Wealth is only a very temporary phenomenon.
- Respect of persons in the sense of discrimination within the church, the different treatment of rich and poor, is strongly condemned.
- Someone who does not in fact help a poor person who is placed on his path, gives evidence of having a dead faith.
- Genuine wisdom, i.e., wisdom coming from God, seeks the interests of the other person.
- Wealth is an uncertain guarantee. God condemns the injustice that the rich inflict upon the often-indefensible poor.
We paid attention to some aspects of this book of the Bible. It holds true also of this book of Scripture, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).