"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and ear your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you" (James 5:1-6)
Of course these words don't apply to us! In the context of James these are most likely the rich non-Christian who were oppressing the largely impoverished congregations James pastored, made up of day-laborers, akin to our modern-day migrant workers, in agricultural settings. By not receiving their agreed-on wages at the end of each day, the workers might not have enough money to buy food for themselves and their families. If this happened often enough, they would have to borrow money in order to avoid starvation. But they would sometimes be unable to repay their debts and eventually could be thrown into debtors' prison. There they would have no way of earning any money. Unless they had friends, they would not eat in prison because ancient Roman prisoners did not bother to feed prisoners. But friends from outside could bring prisoners things to eat. Unless a well-to-do benefactor came to their aid from outside, they would languish in prison for life, a life often drastically shortened by the cruel conditions. It is this sense in which the rich oppressors were condemning and murdering innocent people.
The Sunday before Election day, I preached in the only Evangelical church of Meynooth, Ireland, home to the theological college that trains Ireland's Catholic priests and, until six years ago, was bereft of evangelical churches altogether. It was a small gathering of about one hundred people meeting in a large classroom of a secondary school. But what a wonderful gathering of people it was, welcoming, friendly, and yet serious about their faith. As has regularly been my experience in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (but rarely in the United States except after special disasters or tragedies), part of the worship service was devoted to praying for the world and the nation in some detail, by a leader very abreast of the news of the week. The children's sermon even involved an explanation of American politics, the election, and the significance of the outcome in a very even-handed, unbiased fashion and with more political savvy than I often experience in American evangelical churches.
I shouldn't have been surprised. Most countries in the world spent a disproportionate amount of their recent news on the American elections, not because they were enamored with America, but because they realized that in our global village their political and economic well-being is closely tied to what the U.S. does. I was reminded once again of how evangelicals even in the comparatively prosperous nations of Western Europe (and Ireland had the fastest growing economy in the world at one point in the last decade until the recent financial downturn) still lag noticeably behind even the average middle-class American Christian. Not in a critical but merely in an informative way, the pastor in Meynooth reminded his Irish congregation before I spoke that 50% of all the military spending in the entire world was done by Americans in the last year, that Americans have one of the highest percentage of homeless people in the "developed" world, and that Americans still consume more of the world's resources than any other country on the planet, even though the Chinese have between four and five times as many people as we do.
How do we know that the rich in James 5:1-6 are non-Christian? The two main answers are (1) because of the behavior described of them, and (2) because God pronounces only judgment against them. But then if we are honest, we have to say that, by global standards, we are the ones who have lived in luxury and self-indulgence, especially in what we spend on our homes and on our churches, in how much we eat and how much we throw away on recreation and entertainment. At some point presumably this disqualifies any profession of faith in Jesus we might otherwise make. I wish I knew where that line was.
But that would only tempt me to get as close to the line as possible. Since I don't know, I have to consistently ask myself how I can do more and more to move away from the danger of being anywhere close to such a line. After all, the earnings on the investments I didn't give away in the last ten years have all disappeared in the last few months due to the financial crisis. Will I ever learn the lesson?