James chapter 5, verses 1-6
James, the leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem, wrote a letter to his fellow Jews who were living in settlements all over the Roman Empire. We are told that they left Palestine in search of a better way of life. Like so many immigrants, their principal enemy was poverty. This migration had been going on for generations. In fact, in Jesus' day there were eight or ten synagogues in Rome alone. Many of the ex-patriots had done well and had become relatively well off. Some of these were now members of the rapidly expanding Christian communities.
Back in Jerusalem, James had received word that a number of well to do Christians were living in much the same way as their unbaptized brothers and sisters and were losing their Christian focus and values. So he decided to write them a letter to remind them of the ultimate worthlessness of earthly riches. His letter reflects that in the East there were three main sources of wealth. The first was corn and grain. Used along with a little oil and perhaps some fish or meat, it nourishes you but, writes James, hoard it and it grows rotten. Then there were garments. Valuable as needed but, he points out, an excessive collection will only feed the moths. And finally there was gold and silver. Though they will not rust in themselves, James insists that they have the power to corrode and rust the heart and conscience of the one who desires and acquires them beyond reason.
And so James makes a point worthy of our consideration. To concentrate on, to dedicate oneself to material things is not only to focus on a decaying delusion; it is to invite self- destruction.
Having said all of this, James would agree that honestly acquired wealth has the potential to be a blessing provided it is shared with the less fortunate, used to create employment, to generate just wages and, within this context, is understood to be a sacred trust.
To maintain that nothing has changed since James wrote his letter would be manifestly untrue. The Christian Gospel has had a tremendous effect upon the minds and hearts of mankind, but, none the less, too few wealthy people are sufficiently responsible and that is why no wealthy nation is sufficiently responsible and we are left with unacceptable levels of poverty.
James was angry over what he saw about him as well as abroad. The abuse of power and the hoarding of wealth in the face of hunger and nakedness clearly defied The Gospel.
If we are disciples of Jesus, can we have any other reaction as we observe the imbalances of today?
If this were a debate, many of us would point to contemporary massive tax support for welfare programs. Given the punitive level at which we are taxed, this is an understandable defence. But the sad truth lies in the inadequacy and waste built into most of these programs and the huge gaps that remain in social security. Many areas of need are not even addressed by publicly funded agencies. In the meantime, all of the major service clubs and various church sponsored groups are facing diminishing memberships.
The scene, whether local or universal, is a good deal more complex than it was in James' day but no less urgent, no less demanding of a personal Christian response.
We might not have much time and we might have less money, but, at the very least, from a global perspective, we are rich!