You know, it would be nice if we could just explain it away.
Like, “it’s not ‘money is the root of all evil’ but ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.” That sort of clarification can help us sleep at night. (By the way, that’s Paul in 1 Timothy.)
James doesn’t give a lot of wiggle room in that regard. But let’s try:
Maybe it’s just preferring rich people over poor people that has James beaded up. In 2:1-7, he lambastes that; in fact, it’s one of the few times he invokes Jesus in the letter. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
Unfortunately for our conscience, he continues: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.” So maybe it’s just a matter of being nice to the poor?
Nope. “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”
So, yeah, James has a problem with rich people, who he says in the opening of the letter “will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” (1:10-11) And at the end: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days.” (5:1-3)
But that’s OK, because I’m not rich. (At least on the scale I look at. If you look around the globe, most of us can’t really say that. But that’s not the scale I’m using.) I mean, when he says, “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts,” that’s not me. (Pay no attention to the companies that make the clothes I wear or put food on my table or otherwise make up an economy that leaves too many behind. I’m just another worker-bee here. I don’t make the rules. Right?) Now those people, the ones who have rigged the system against the poor, they need to listen to this guy when he says “you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” (5:5) I’m glad I’m not them.
Then James starts talking in 4:1-10 about how the source of conflict between us comes from our “cravings that are at war within you” because we “want something and do not have it.” And that wanting hits a little too close for comfort. When he says “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God,” the dots start to connect. The through-line of all his diatribes against wealth and greed is idolatry. That’s why he invokes Jesus’ name in chapter 2. That’s why in blasting the poor in chapter 5 he closes with “You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” (5:6) That’s why in chapter 4 he connects greed with adultery – not as a sexual thing, but as a betrayal of a God who “yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.”
Here’s the (uncomfortable) deal. We all put our trust in something, and it’s either God or it’s not. If it’s not God, it’s usually our stuff, our wealth, ourselves, and even if your trust is in something that looks more like a 401k than a golden calf, it’s still an idol.
Francis Chan said in one of his books (I think it was Forgotten God) that he was giving up his retirement plan and insurance so that he would be forced to rely on God working through his faith community. THAT is a bold statement against idolatry. (And one I am not willing to make.)
In the Disney classic Aladdin, what gives away the main character-in-disguise is a moment when he reaches down and asks “Do you trust me?” And while there are some pretty clear limits to how much you can rely on Disney characters for theological guidance, that’s the image that this sort of examination of conscience always brings to mind for me.
What I think James is saying in his critiques of favoritism, riches and greed is this: All of us, every day, get asked that question by God: Do you trust Me? And if we’re honest, those of us who have something tangible set aside usually say, by our actions if not words, “Nah, I’m good;” it’s only those who have nowhere else to turn who end up trusting God fully.
That’s the idolatry against which James rages, and it sure hasn’t gone away since then. At least not from my vantage point, looking around at my own life.
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