In this passage James takes up the mantel of the Old Testament prophets proclaiming harsh judgment on “the rich.” This passage is the climax of this letter’s theme on the rich. Throughout the book the rich are never referred to as brothers. We may rightly surmise that the rich are unbelieving landowners who oppress the laborers who work their fields. Those laborers are most likely the Jewish-Christians of the Dispersion to whom James is writing. The goal of this theme of the rich, in this letter, is to highlight how riches rot away. They fade. They offer no hope. And so the rich should not be shown partiality. They should not be favored. The goal is not to get the rich to like Christians, it’s not for Christians to aspire to that kind of self-indulgent wealth. It’s not to rise up and overthrow the rich. The goal is that Christians would hope in their Savior and not in the rich or riches.
The Bible doesn’t condemn having money or being wealthy. What James and all of Scripture does condemn is the idolatry of money, wealth, riches – the sinful use of wealth and the sinful gain of wealth. Godly people can have lots of money and things, but the issue is where their heart is. Wealth can be a stumbling block for the rich, the poor and everyone in between. Riches are a strong temptation, which is why Jesus says in Matthew 19:23-24, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” So as wealthy people in this country, at this day and age, we need to hear this message with the power of Jesus’ first sermon, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). We must listen as James outlines how, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Here in James 5:1-6, we are given a stark picture of the rich who live for the love of money. That picture gives the believer a strong reminder that the security and wealth “the rich” strive for can only be truly, eternally found in the gospel of Jesus.