Wealth and Poverty in the Letter of James

Introduction

The letter of James is famed for its stirring ethical clarity. This is especially true of its teachings on wealth and poverty, which constitute one of the leading concerns of James’ missive. In this essay, I will argue that James provides a coherent ethical view of wealth and poverty for his audience,[1] which undergirds his specific exhortations on the matter. The essay itself will unfold in three (unequal) sections. First, I will exegetically survey the relevant passages in James, parsing his main lines of thought according to three, conceptual categories: the epistle’s notion of eschatological reversal; its prophetic critique of wealth and economic injustice; and its forceful moral entreaties. Second, I will “delve beneath” those initial results and argue that the ethics of the OT and of Jesus have decisively shaped James’ economic teachings. Finally, I shall outline the implications of the aforementioned, particularly in relation to James’ overall theological-ethical agenda. Indeed, it is within this overarching framework that James’ economic counsel must be placed, as he sets out his vision for a people renewed, living in a liminal age.

James’ Teachings

The five main passages on wealth and poverty in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) reflect a cohesive programme for how to approach these matters. I have grouped James’ teachings within three inter-related categories, linked by his theocentric outlook: the eschatological reversal of status; prophetic denunciations of the (unrighteous) wealthy; and exhortations towards proper treatment of the destitute. These categories represent different facets of the larger issue of wealth and poverty in James’ epistle, evincing a spirit of social and economic egalitarianism.[2] Moreover, because these threads are woven into James’ controlling narrative, I shall pick them up at the essay’s end.

James’ teachings on wealth and poverty often focus on the eschatological reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor.[3] Indeed, James signals his conviction that present struggles (cf. 1:2-4) – borne out of economic deprivation and/or the exploitation of the poor by the rich[4] – are transitory, subject to God’s ultimate (i.e. eschatological) verdict and purposes.[5] This lies behind his initial exhortations on the matter, in 1:9-11: the Christian in lowly circumstances (“brother”) should exult in his “high position,”[6] whilst the “one who is rich” should focus upon his “low position.”[7] For James, present status and hierarchies will be overturned – reversed – when God’s purposes are fully and finally revealed. Poor believers are to “take pride” in their impending vindication in God’s kingdom, and are encouraged to look beyond their current earthly status (v.9);[8] the rich, on the other hand, are to “boast” in nothing more than the fact that they have been accepted as servants within that same kingdom (v.10-11).[9]

James 1:9-11 effectively argues that God will erase present injustices.[10] Believers should therefore evaluate themselves by spiritual, not material, standards, and orient their lives around God’s final purposes, rather than the present.[11] James underscores the ephemeral nature of riches when he says that the affluent believer may pass away even as he goes about his business (v.11). Life’s impermanence, James implies, should caution against overreliance on material goods for one’s security; thoughts of self-sufficiency, owing to economic security, are anathema (cf. 4:13-16). Significantly, James speaks of one’s future eschatological position as simultaneously present – of a status that is already a reality, even if it awaits final consummation.[12] I will return to the larger issue of this tension at the essay’s end.

Eschatological reversal also surfaces in Jas 2:1-7. There, James castigates his audience for discriminating between people based upon their socio-economic status – an issue that seems to have been very real in the communities to which James wrote, given the space he devotes to the matter.[13] James partly bases his criticisms on the fact that such favouritism is wholly contrary to God’s own special concern for the lowly and downtrodden – demonstrated particularly in the fact that he has “chosen” the poor to inherit his kingdom (v.5).[14] Like 1:9-11, the ethical exhortations in 2:1-7 are partly rooted in God’s eschatological judgments. Because the Creator and Judge has deigned to exalt the poor, any kind of behaviour within the church that mirrors the stratified world around it is sinful. James 2:1-7 also contrasts earthly poverty with spiritual wealth (esp. v.5), implying that worldly status and divine worth do not necessarily coincide. James’ point is clear: not only is it wrong to treat poor brethren so disdainfully, as it is they to whom God directs his mercy; a believer’s present earthly position, whether she be poor or rich, in no way reflects social relationships within God’s kingdom.

James’ denunciations of the wealthy in 5:1-6 reflect similar concerns to 2:6b-7, and demonstrate the relationship between this polemical exposure and James’ belief in the eschatological erasure of status and hierarchy.[15] James 5:1-6 offers a trenchant critique of the rich, tinged with prophetic indignation.[16] His letter speaks not only about the future (though partly realized) upheavals of the present socio-economic order, where misery will befall the unrighteous rich (vv. 1-2, 5); the catalogue of sins listed in 5:1-6 reflects James’ warnings about the present dangers of “unrighteous Mammon”, cohering with passages elsewhere which evince a condemnatory attitude towards materialism and avarice (cf. 4:13-16).[17] Here, wealth’s transience gives way to the testimony of judgment (vv.2-3). Of course, James does not denounce the wealthy qua wealthy. He states precisely why they are liable to judgment: they have acted oppressively and exploited the poor (vv.4-6).[18] But he also criticises them for hoarding their wealth whilst others have suffered penury (v.3b). In any event, James writes convinced that the unrighteous rich will not be able to sin with impunity forever.[19]

As noted, these passages are joined together by an important theological point of orientation for James – the purposes and nature of God. James, for example, can say that the Lord hears the cries of the exploited (5:4c): in a world where they are defenceless, he is their guardian.[20] Rooted in God’s supreme compassion and mercy, Jas 1:27 and 2:14-17 exhort his audience to use wealth and resources righteously – upholding the vulnerable, and supporting those who are materially bereft. For him, the proper stance towards wealth and economic status is imitative of God. James 1:27 explicitly links care for the poor – exemplified via widows and orphans – to unsullied religion acceptable to God.[21] He condemns rapacity (4:2; 5:1ff), whilst commending generosity.[22] James calls the Lord “Father,” subtly suggesting that care for the fatherless recapitulates God’s own paternal largesse (1:27; cf. 1:17). So, too, 2:14-17, where authentic devotion, reflected in the language of “faith,” is expressed via deeds of mercy towards impoverished brethren.[23] Indeed, James’ illustrative choice is telling. One may also cite 2:1-7, which reflects James’ concern about honouring, godly attitudes towards poverty and the poor.

James’ Influences

Whether viewing economics through the lens of eschatology, or urging his audience to use what they have compassionately and justly, James grounds his teachings in God’s character and purposes. However, he did not create this perspective de novo; rather, his economic teachings reflect dependence upon a long and rich tradition, stemming from OT-Jewish thought regarding God’s just and merciful character, and the corresponding obligations placed upon his people.[24] James’ letter builds upon, and grows out of, this consistent biblical theme.

James’ reliance on OT prophetic and wisdom traditions has long been recognized, as has his use of categories of vulnerable people the OT frequently employs (Jas 1:27; cf. Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5).[25] Particularly influential for James’ teachings regarding wealth and poverty, however, is the law. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James condemns partiality in the redeemed communities. He roots his condemnation in an extended application of the law of neighbour love, found in Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Jas 2:8ff), and his teachings reflect a broad dependence on the law’s social concern.[26] An expression of God’s character and will, the law informs James’ economic teachings, especially at this crucial point (cf. 1:27, applying the command to follow the word). Partiality (or selfishness and apathy in the face of poverty) is contrary to the law – and, therefore, contrary to the fundamental image of God as compassionate Father who treats all image-bearers equally.

However, James doesn’t simply allude to OT-Jewish tradition; his letter also echoes the voice of Jesus. For James, God’s attitudes to poverty and wealth – as well as the corresponding obligations of God’s people – are particularized and fulfilled in Jesus (e.g. 2:1).[27] Scholars note the many verbal links between Jesus and James.[28] For our purposes, Jesus’ social and economic teachings are relevant. Contrasts between listening to, and obeying, the word (Jas 1:22/Matt 7:24ff); promises to the poor of a royal inheritance (Jas 2:5/Matt 5:3); denunciation of the wealthy (Jas 5:1-6/Lk 6:24-26); the basic importance of eschatological reversal (Jas 1:9-11/Matt 19:30; 20:16); and, most saliently, the significance of the Levitical law of neighbour love (Jas 2:8/Matt 22:34-40), all suggest Jesus’ overriding influence upon James’ thought. Reference to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8) nuances OT legal codes according to the law of the kingdom (v.5; cf. 1:25), embodied in Jesus.[29] For James, the law – which helps animate his teachings on wealth and poverty – is taken up into the ethics of Jesus, becoming the implanted word that “can save” (1:21).[30] James views the communities to which he writes as the Messianically-renewed people of God (cf. the language of 1:1b),[31] and writes in the light of that reality. Jesus, God’s agent in eschatological restoration, constitutes the defining voice behind James’ economic exhortations and admonitions, shaping them at a deep, structural level.[32]

James’ Controlling Narrative

For James, God’s past revelation and future purposes – effecting justice, denouncing economic oppression and commanding mercy – are drawn together in Jesus’ establishment of a redeemed community, embodying God’s kingly righteousness. This leads us to James’ controlling narrative, tellingly illuminated by 1:18 (with its overtones of new creation):[33] the church is the “first fruits” of God’s redemptive reign.[34] His teachings on wealth and poverty reflect reliance upon this fundamental salvation-historical story.[35] Consequently, James urges his audience to live according to the requirements and implications of the eschatological inauguration of God’s kingdom, anticipating its consummation via a just, compassionate – indeed, counter-cultural – approach to the harsh socio-economic milieu they inhabit.[36]

And so we come full circle, returning to the fruits of our exegetical survey. James’ broader eschatological concerns and context,[37] within which he situates his teachings on wealth and poverty, are clear. Aside from the already-surveyed confluence between eschatology and economics,[38] James’ whole letter brims with eschatological conviction: he consistently invokes divine judgment to motivate right living (2:12; 4:12; 5:7-9), whilst picturing the Christian life as a trajectory moving towards its final goal (1:2-4). Moreover, James’ partly realized (i.e. inaugurated) eschatology suggests that he thinks of his audience as living in a liminal phase – the first of a burgeoning, divinely-ordained future (1:18; cf. 2:5). His audience, having been “birthed” through God’s saving word (v.18), operate as his redemptive vanguard. Through his instructions on wealth and poverty, James implies that the values of the kingdom should be practiced proleptically – offering an “advance model” of what God’s just reign will look like.[39]

Paired with this view is James’ sustained, thematic call to “wholeness,” “completeness” or “perfection.”[40] The audience’s obligation to approach wealth and poverty in the way(s) he urges are part of a complex of behaviours by which believers, both individually and communally,[41] demonstrate their devotion towards God and each other. James seeks to encourage economic behaviour that is oriented towards God’s present injunctions and his future rule. His letter is replete with terms that reflect this constellation of thought,[42] and it carries concern for ethical completeness (and within that, a godly approach to economics) in a number of ways: commendation of “pure religion” (1:27); a “whole” faith, manifested in good deeds; endurance towards one’s spiritual telos or goal (1:2-4); criticism of the “double-minded” (1:7-8); and, in a crucial passage, the excoriation of spiritual “adulterers” and encouragement towards purity (4:1-10). James urges unity within Christian assemblies (cf. 2:1-7), which coheres with the complete devotion and spiritual wholeness to which he enjoins individuals.[43] He repeatedly envisages eschatological “wholeness” as a present requirement; by calling them to live in an “undivided” manner – to which acting righteously in regards to wealth and poverty provides powerful attestation[44] – James instructs his audience to anticipate the ultimate perfection that a just and compassionate God will bring (cf. 2:5).

Conclusion

The foregoing analysis has attempted to provide a summation of the main facets of James’ teachings on wealth and poverty. His letter features several, related concerns that are especially prominent: the eschatological reversal of socio-economic status/hierarchy; the prophetic exposure of economic unrighteousness and oppression; and the corresponding regard for those who are impoverished and/or vulnerable. James evinces basic sympathy towards the victims of present injustices, grounding it in God’s nature and purposes, and the corresponding ethical implications for his people. James relies upon the consistent witness of the OT regarding treatment of the poor, evidenced in his use of the law to condemn practices contrary to God’s fundamental character. That character is, for James, exhibited in Jesus, the decisive voice in the letter’s economic-ethical teachings. These findings suggest that James’ instructions on wealth and poverty are situated within a controlling narrative, one which sees Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s (partly realized) eschatological kingdom. James writes to his audience as the “first fruits” of that inauguration, urging them to embody God’s perfect rule through economic justice and generous stewardship.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

————————-. “Eschatology.” Pages 333-339 in New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition). Edited by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer & D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Beale, Greg K. “Eschatology”. Pages 330-345 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. Volume Two: New Testament Survey. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Carson, D.A. “James,” Pages 997-1013 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1 vol.; Anchor Bible 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.

————————. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

————————. Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Lemcio, E.E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988): 3-17.

McCartney, Dan G. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Waco: Word, 1988.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

Moo, Douglas. James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ross, Allan P. Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Wachob, Wesley Hiram. The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (Studies in the New Testament Series 106. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Wall, Robert. “James, Letter of.” Pages 545-561 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert Lee. “Piety and Poverty in James.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall, 1987): 37-55.

Winbery, Carlton L. “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James.” Theological Educator 34 (Fall, 1986): 26-34.

Witherington III, Ben. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009.

[1] See Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22-24; Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. New Testament Introduction and Survey, Volume 2 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 390, for similar reconstructions of the identity of James’ audience.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1 vol.; AB 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995), 82.

[3] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco: Word, 1988), 25-26; Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70-71.

[4] Moo, James, 65. On the socio-economic conditions of the first century, see Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 12-23.

[5] On eschatology and the later NT (and James esp.), see Greg K. Beale, “Eschatology,” DLNTD, 330-333, 335; Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” NBD, 333-334.

[6] Carlton L. Winbery, “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James,” TE 34 (Fall, 1986): 28.

[7] Moo, James, 68, argues that the rich person is a Christian; cf. Martin, James, 25-26. I agree with Moo that the term “brother” (v.9) governs both individuals.

[8] Robert Lee Williams, “Piety and Poverty in James,” WTJ 22 (Fall, 1987): 43.

[9] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 29; Moo, James, 66.

[10] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 28.

[11] McCartney, James, 98.

[12] Martin, James, 25, 28; Johnson, The Letter of James, 185; Moo, James, 30.

[13] Moo, James, 98.

[14] Moo, James, 35.

[15] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 31-32.

[16] Moo, James, 211.

[17] McCartney, James, 232.

[18] Moo, James, 210.

[19] Johnson, The Letter of James, 309.

[20] Moo, James, 216.

[21] Martin, James, 52.

[22] Johnson, Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92.

[23] Martin, James, 52.

[24] See Moo, James, 35-36 for a discussion of this general theological-ethical trend; cf. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42.

[25] See D.A. Carson, “James” CNTOT, 997-1013. On the influence of wisdom and prophecy, see Johnson, The Letter of James, 32-34.

[26] See Johnson, The Letter of James, 30-32; Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127-135; Carson, “James,” 999-1000. On Leviticus 19, see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351-365.

[27] The consequential relationship between faith in Jesus and rejection of partiality is clear. See Wesley Hiram Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (SNTS 106; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 77.

[28] See esp. Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009), 298; Wachob, The Social Rhetoric, 138.  

[29] Moo, James, 98, 112; Carson, “James,” 1000.

[30] McCartney, James, 110.

[31] The language suggests that James sees his audience as the renewed “Israel” of God. See Davids, Commentary, 63.

[32] Bauckham, James (NTR; London: Routledge, 1999), 147.

[33] McCartney, James, 111.

[34] Moo, James, 24, 80.

[35] On the unifying story of the NT, see E.E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988), 6.

[36] On the narrative cast of James’ letter, see Robert Wall, “James, Letter of,” DLNTD, 556-557; Bauckham, James, 100; Winbery, “The Attitude,” 33; Johnson, The Letter, 85-88.

[37] McCartney, James, 70-71.

[38] Cf. Moo, James, 36-37.

[39] Bauckham, James, 173; Moo, James, 24.

[40] See Bauckham, James, 165, 173-179, for an extended treatment; Martin, James, lxxix.

[41] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[42] See esp. Martin, James, lxxix.

[43] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[44] Moo, James, 97-98.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s