In the news this week is the story of Dan Price. Price founded and heads up a company called Gravity payments in Seattle Washington. It processes credit card payments for its clients, last year it made 2.2 million dollars profit and it employs 120 people. It is trying to be a just player in a ruthless industry. Last Monday Price made an amazing announcement to his staff. The average wage of his workers was about $45,000-$48,000 and after doing some research into happiness indexes, that measure life in terms of well-being rather than wealth, he announced that over the next three years he was increasing everyone’s minimum wage to $70,000. He was aware of the financial hardships some of his employees were facing. He wanted to make a difference. He was also aware of the great disparity between the salaries of CEO’s and the people that work for them. So he announced he was taking a pay cut from over 900,000 p.a. to the $70,000 base salary to help fund the new minimum rate until such time as the company’s profit were back up to their present level.
AS you can imagine his staff were amazed and overwhelmed. One lady who was interviewed talked of the pressure of rising rents and scraping enough together for doctors’ appointments and how this would just change everything. I did hope that it would also impact the people who worked for the cleaning company that cleaned their offices at night… But as I read this story I couldn’t help but think of the passage in James we had read to us today. I couldn’t help but imagine James down through the ages nodding his head. And it is a positive way for us to approach what is a very hard passage for us this morning. A passage in which James sounding very much like an Old Testament prophet speaks to the rich land owners of his time and to people of all times about wealth and justice.
Last week we looked at James message to the merchants about focusing on building up their wealth with no thought of God. They talked themselves up, boasting of their plans and their wealth, James reminded them that such wealth and even life itself is fickle and short, like vapour or mist. Rather they needed to focus on things of eternal values, God’s purposes, God’s justice, God’s righteousness. James had reminded the merchants of their sins of omissions, knowing the good they should do and not doing it, but with this next group he is very blunt saying that they are actively oppressing the poor.
James starts with a general warning and call to the rich to realise that judgment is coming. It is a call to repentance… In the worlds eyes the rich are seen as those who are blessed, but James reminds them that in Jesus eyes it is the poor who are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of God, they know their need for God. In Luke’s 6:20 Jesus equally gives a warning which says woe to you who are rich, for you have had your fill now. They have focused on the things of this world at the expense of eternity. Now I need to reiterate that James is not anti-wealth, rather he is very aware of its dangers. RVG Tasker says it is a warning about the misuse of the gift of wealth, while David Nystrom comments “James does not condemn riches per sae, but rather the fact that the wealthy have not sought to use their wealth to alleviate the suffering of the poor”.
Then James list the ways the rich have oppressed the poor. In verse 2-3 he says that they have continued to hoard wealth in the last days. Wealth in James day was measured in produce, cloths and in gold and silver and James here gives the picture of all the things that had been stored and stock piled amounting to nothing. The wine turning to vinegar, grain and other produce stored in barns rotting. Having spare and fancy clothes was a sign of wealth, garments would be passed on as heirlooms. I guess it is like being able to invest in designer labels and high fashion today. But James says well even those will eventually end up mouldy and moth bitten. Gold and silver which is simply left unused will lose their luster. And while gold and silver do not rust James uses poetic license to say that in the end even that these will corrode. He uses the image of this wealth being like rusting iron chains eating into the flesh of a convicted criminal. The marks they leave bearing witness to their crimes.
The idea of the last days, does not mean that James has an expectation of a sudden judgement, but rather that we live in the tension between the already and the not yet. That the kingdom of God was inaugurated by the coming of Christ, but we await its consummation in the return of Christ. To hoard wealth in light of that is very much what Jesus warns us not to do , by saying do not store up treasures on earth where rust and moths destroy, rather store up your treasure in heaven.
James Then points to is that the rich landowners had amassed their wealth by oppressing the poor, by withholding wages from the workers in their fields. The picture here is of those people being ripped off, underpaid or simply left unpaid. In the Old Testament, Israel was to be a place where workers were paid a just wage. It was a reflection of the generosity of God and a reaction to their time as slaves in Egypt. Amos had to point out to the people of his time that they were experiencing a time of prosperity not due to god’s favour but because they were enforcing disparity between the haves and the have not’s. James points here that the rich in his time, both in the church and in society were doing the same.
He then moves on to talk of an extravagant and self-indulgent life style. A life of excess and waste. James uses the image of a cattle beast being fattened for slaughter. The beast may think itself blessed to find itself in a barn surrounded by all the hay it can eat, instead of exposed to the elements searching for sparse grass in semi-arid regions, but they are not aware of what is to come.
Finally James talks of the rich condemning and murdering the poor. Maybe it is like the story of Ahab and Nabors in the book of Kings where king Ahab wants a vineyard and so has its owner killed. It maybe that James is pointing out that the way the rich focus on their own desires and appetites actually leads to death. In a book called the life of Appollonius, written in roman times it records a city being beset by riots over a lack of food while the rich landowners had locked away their grain to export it and make a greater profit.
This last verse is hard to translate and interpret, but some scholars wonder if here James is pointing to the fact that in the way the rich are mistreating the poor they were mistreating Christ himself. In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus had said that as you treat or mistreat the least of them, the poor, the sick, the prisoner you do it to me. They kill the innocent and in doing so have contributed to the killing of the innocent one.
This is pretty heavy stuff and a real challenge for Christians and our world today. Probably the best way to apply it to ourselves today is through the lens of three different purposes James has for speaking in this way.
While most of James’ sections are addressed to ‘brothers and sisters, this section and the previous one have started in a more general way… ‘Now listen’. James is addressing the wider society. He is acting as a prophet and bringing to the light matters of injustice and calling people to repent of these practices. We often think of a prophet as being someone who foretells the word of God, but in actual fact it is telling forth the word of God: Making the timeless word of God timely to the situation and context in which we live. As we’ve seen here James takes the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus and applies it to the world in which the church now finds itself a diaspora population. Equally it speaks to our own world and time. We live in an age where there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor. We live in an age where there is a growing underclass; in our county we have a growing group of people who are the working poor… While the government has a minimum wage policy in place, it is not enough to make ends meet, part time work and zero hour contracts drive down actual working conditions and take home pay. We have a growing group of people who try and flaunt the law about pay and working conditions in the name of making themselves wealthy. Globalisation has meant that cheap and even salve labour can be exploited in developing countries to ensure we get the cheap goods we demand and that the wealthy continue to collect and grow their assets. It is horrific to think that one of the slavery is alive and well in the twenty first century. Is justice just the right of those who can pay for it in New Zealand as well? Recently two young men were sent home from their schools madii cup rowing team because they had pulled a stupid prank at an airport and broken the law. Their parents were able to get a high court in junction against the school, because it was going to disadvantage their son’s chances of getting into a national squad. They got their own way. I wonder if the school was in south Auckland, the game was rugby and the boys were Maori or Pacific Island, the families would not have been able to afford that redress. Well maybe the boys would have been more respectful and better behaved in the first place. Economic theorists talk of the trickledown effect of consumerism and capitalism, but scripture calls for justice to flow like a river and righteousness like a never ending stream.
Secondly, while James is issuing a general call to repentance, his audience are still the same Christian brothers and sisters that he has been addressing all along. The people struggling with being double minded, showing favouritism to the rich, sending the poor away empty handed. Being Christian in name but their desires being shaped by the society around them. A challenge we still face today, For example, just recently televangelist Creflo Dollar, who is said to be one of the richest pastors in the world worth millions of dollars, announced that God had told him it was time to believe for a new plane and he asked his faithful to donate to get a new multi million dollar Gulf stream for his ministry. He has had to back down after the uproar from within and outside Christian circles. People James’ warning calls for us to examine how we live. James was the head of the church in Jerusalem and in Acts we see a very different understanding of wealth, people held things in common, if there was a need people sold their property to meet that need.
JV Taylor in the book enough is enough gives Christians two questions to use to respond to the mind altering amount of messages we receive about consumerism with its underlying narrative of seeking the life style of the rich. He says we should always ask “who are you trying to kid?” aware that we are being manipulated by people skilled in the art of communication. The other question is simply “can we afford it?” not just from an economic point of view but from a justice point of view, an ecological point of view.
Dave Price’s actions are a challenge to Christians in business about just wages. Others have been willing to settle for less so they can share their skills and abilities with those in need. Geoff Borckett shared with us last year about going as an engineer to Bangledesh and using his skills and imagination with alternative fuels to help the poor in that nation and have an impact on the environment. I have Christian friends who as lawyers were involved in starting the Mangere community law centre, willing to give of their times so all could have access to high quality legal help.
Finally, the passage is given as encouragement and hope for those who face injustice and oppression. Their voice is not often heard, and when it is it is usually attached to some political position, used to gather votes. But here James let the poor the oppressed those suffering and struggling know that God hears and God sees that their voices have been heard in heaven. That God stands alongside and with them. That justice will come; that they matter; that they are of value. That God is in the process of answering their cries. What concerns James so much about seeing the attitudes and action of the society round them reflected in the church is that we are supposed to be a place that represents the Kingdom of God answer to the world around us: A place where all are treated equally. A Place where injustice and inequality are meet with compassion, generosity, a prophetic voice and sacrificial giving.