Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. (James 5:4; NIV84)
Something happened to the believers that made them lose much of their personal wealth and resources.
In the passage above, many of them were not paid their due wages. Poverty-stricken, broke, hungry, they cried to God, who was their only defense. And he heard them.
This letter has a different view of poverty than what we readily see, or expect. Consider this passage:
The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. (1:9-11)
You may want to read that again.
The impoverished, to James, are those whose only recourse is God. Not a job change or promotion or second job. Only God. And God responds to them, because their position is indeed high. They have the ear of God, and they have his heart.
The wealthy, according to James, are those who should boast in their humiliation. But what in the world does that mean?
There are several answers, across the spectrum of scholars, but here’s my take. The wealthy should anticipate losing what they have. Or, better yet, should realize that what they have can be gone incredibly quickly. Maybe a further explanation is required.
There is no wealth like the grace of God. The impoverished live this reality every day. The wealthy (even Jesus taught this) are quickly enticed to think they’ve earned the worth in their bank accounts. The kingdom of God welcomes people who, on either side of the spectrum, trust God in every decision, in wealth or poverty. It’s a level playing field, regardless of personal wealth.
But James’ images of poverty in the kingdom continue.
Later, in James 1:27, kingdom people primarily care for the powerless. The impoverished and disenfranchised are those who are exalted to a position of power — because they receive the full resources of the believers. Wow.
Continuing, in James 2:1-7, James wrote against favoritism based upon wealth — at the expense of the poor. Yet, James wrote that God has chosen those who are “poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised.” Again, the poor receive the special treatment in the kingdom.
In our reading today, it is God who champions the cause of the impoverished and oppressed. The poor did not resort to violence in their calamity (5:6), yet cried to God, and trusted in God’s vindication.
So let’s be relevant for a moment. In the current American discourse, much attention has been given to the massive health care debate, and law, implemented in the previous years. Essentially, for whatever political capital there was to be gained, the law will provide health insurance, and medical coverage, for those who cannot afford it.
My only take, and question, is this: if the American church truly exalted the impoverished and poor, would such a law even be necessary?
In the culture of the biblical writings in the New Testament, there was little that looked like our current middle-class. Rich and poor were the only economic statuses — field owners and day-laborers. And there was very little in the way of government subsidies for the devastatingly impoverished. No welfare or unemployment or retirement monies.
And certainly no government healthcare.
There was no safety-net for the poor, except God. And with the fluctuating economy in the ancient world, even the very wealthy could lose everything in war or drought. Simply put, there were no guarantees.
(What would happen if we not only taught this, but mentored this, for the next generation? How would that change the cultural landscape of America?)
The emerging kingdom of God, then, simply said that the very, very poor should receive the very best treatment, regardless of the constant flux of their economic world. Because there was no where else for the very poor to turn.
It is this sort of re-creation that is the priority in James’ letter. Kingdom people see the world differently. Our fallen world despises the poor and exalts the rich. The kingdom of God, filled with re-created people, exalts the poor instead.
Exalts them. Not tolerates them. Not feeds them. Exalts them.