Thursday of Week 7 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on James 5:1-6

James continues his attack on the greedy and the arrogant.  This time it is a warning against those who are already rich.  Their very wealth will turn against them in condemnation.  Those being attacked are not necessarily Christians, as there were not many rich among them in the early Church.  James warns these people to repent and weep for their coming misery.  The passage in general is similar to Old Testament declarations of judgement against unbelieving nations in books which are for the most part addressed to God’s people.

The wealth of the rich, like their clothes, will rot.  Their beautiful clothes (an ancient symbol of wealth) will become moth-eaten and even their gold and silver corrode.  And that corrosion will be a testimony against them.  Wealth is not meant for storing but for sharing with the needy: “I was in need but – with all your wealth – you did nothing to help me.”  If material wealth is all they have to show for their lives, they are in trouble.

Rather sarcastically James tells the rich:

You have laid up treasure during the last days.

On the judgement day their selfish misuse of the goods that came their way will testify against them.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said:

…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:20)

But the real sin of the rich is not just that they store wealth for themselves, but that they have become wealthy at the expense of others who were deprived of their most basic needs.  They underpaid the workers who produced the goods which made their masters so wealthy. Says James in mockery:

You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter.

The wicked rich are like cattle that continue to fatten themselves on the very day they are to be slaughtered, totally unaware of coming destruction.  Again, Jesus has spoken of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar at the foot of his groaning table.  “I did nothing!” the rich man might have cried in protest at this punishment. To which the answer would be: “Exactly!”

To be rich in the Bible usually means having great possessions while those around are in great need. Such wealth can never be justified. It is a gross injustice and cries out to God for redress.

In our world today, individuals, societies and even whole nations enjoy obscene levels of wealth and affluence when hundreds of millions live without the basics of food, water, clothing, shelter and the simplest of medical care.

James says:

You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

The author does not have in mind any specific crime in his readers’ communities, but rather echoes the Old Testament theme of the harsh oppression of the righteous poor. The same is so true today.  While the rich go to their playgrounds, so many of the world’s poor scramble for a living with not a word of protest.

It might be worth our while to ask where we fit into all of this and whether our consciences are clear with the way in which we acquire and use the goods of this world that come under our control.

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