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"Come now ye rich weep and howl": understanding James in proper context

It's pretty routine in discussions about economics from Christian critics of the market system to fling James 1:1 at defenders of capitalism:

"Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you."

I wish they would keep reading the whole book, and I wish they would put it in proper historical context. If they did, they would see that this warning about judgment is aimed at a specific group of people. In short, I wish they would read Pastor Jeff Meyers new commentary on James, Wisdom for Dissidents (The Epistle of James Through New Eyes: Wisdom for Dissidents – Athanasius Press).

Meyers puts James in the context of both the Gospels beforehand and the Book of Acts at the same time, showing that rather than being a 'to whom it may concern' letter, it has a specific context. Jesus had warned that persecution would come soon after his time on earth, and that it would involve expropriation of property. He also warned that Jerusalem would fall and the temple along with it. Jesus had very specific criticisms of the Temple's economic model (as demonstrated by his confrontation with the moneychangers) and with members of the ruling class, such as the rich young ruler who were extracting wealth using political power to commit fraud.

Shortly into the book of Acts we see persecution breaking out, and this causes Christians to be dispersed away from Jerusalem. The book of James is specifically addressed to this group, the "diaspora," those dispersed by the ruling class persecutors. As the early church is dispersed, it also grows and prospers and the temple elite, unsatisfied with driving Jesus followers out of Jerusalem, create an industry devoted to bounty hunting of Christians. In fact, Paul himself was part of that industry.

Christians were tempted to make some kind of accommodation to this system, entering into "friendship with the world" by either sucking up to wealthy members of the ruling class (by offering them prime seats in the synagogue) or joining the zealot camp and embracing violent insurrection as a tactic of resistance.

The sections of James which rail against "you rich" fit that context perfectly: the rich who are being addressed are the rich who are committing the oppression. James says that explicitly "do not rich men oppress you and drag you before the judgment seats?" Who was oppressing the early church and dragging them before tribunals? In the context of those dispersed from Jerusalem, it is the temple political elite. They drag Stephen into a trial. They execute him.

James warns them that "It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!" The word for "treasure" is the verb form of the word that Jesus used to confront the rich young ruler to lay up treasure in heaven; it literally refers not to treasure, but to the treasure room where wealth was stored, and specifically is used for the treasure rooms in temples, including the temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was also the major bank of Jerusalem. Jesus warned that the temple would be destroyed, and James warns the ruling class of Jerusalem, whose money was deposited in those treasure rooms that they had laid up for 'last days', i.e. the last days of their way of life, the temple, and the Jerusalem economic model. Not the last days of the whole world.

James says that these rich have not paid the wage due to the harvesters but rather the wages "you kept back by fraud." The word in Greek is the same one that Jesus used with the rich young ruler when he added "Do not defraud" to the commandments He listed to them.

What's under attack here is not wealth in general, it is a certain economic model, one decried by Jesus to the rich young ruler and to the moneychangers, centered in the political/religious ruling class. This ruling class used coercive political power through corrupt courts to oppress the followers of Jesus. That system then reached a higher level of evil when it created an industry devoted to hunting down the Christians it had previously dispersed. This is the historical context of the parable of the traveling merchant in James 5.

James has a lot to say to us today, but only after we put him in the full context of his own time. The "theocratically rich" (Meyers' phrase) Jerusalem elite were using their political power to enrich themselves and to oppress the Church. To leap from this condemnation and try to weaponize the passage against, for example, an honest merchant who has accumulated wealth through non-coerced business with clients over a lifetime of thrift, is to ignore both the details of the text and the details of the context.

For my recent conversation with Meyers about his book, listen to my podcast here.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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