Practical Faith – Justice (James 5:1-6)

Bible Passage: James 5:1-6

These verses are the most strongly worded section of James’ letter, and he turns his attention to those who are mistreating the poor. The language that James chooses to use and the images that he conveys are strong and unsettling. They do not make for pleasant reading and this is deliberate. James knows that soft-peddling around this problem will not help. Complacent rich oppressors need a jolt to see that the way things currently are is unacceptable. This passage is designed to provide that jolt.

To back up what he is saying, James brings a few home truths to bear:

Judgment Is Coming (v1): When you are in a position of power, it is easy to think that you can get away with anything. Sometimes judgment and justice seem to be a long way away, but James is clear that judgment is on the way. Moreover, he encourages these oppressors to weep and howl. The judgment will not go in their favour. When somebody oppresses another because they think they can get away with it, they will be in for a wakeup call when judgment day comes.

Riches are Temporary (v2-3): James’ second point is that all that has been gained from such oppression will end up amounting to nothing. He talks about how their riches have rotted, their gold and silver has corroded and their garments are moth-eaten. They will have to face their judgment as naked and poor as those they oppressed. Furthermore, the ragged remains will stand as evidence against them. They chose to cause suffering to something eternal – the souls of their workers – in return for something temporary. That will be put on display for all to see.

God Is On the Side of the Oppressed (v4): Often the reason one person oppresses another is that they believe nobody will do anything about it. When they are not in a position of accountability and there is no complaints procedure, it is easy to see how somebody can believe that their actions are beyond judgement. This is not the case, however, as James reminds us. He says that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. The case has been referred now to highest court and God is going to get involved. These rich people have fraudulently withheld the wages of the poor. God will intervene, and when the matter is one of oppression, God chooses to act on behalf of the one being oppressed.

Indifferent Indulgence Enables the Oppression (v5-6): Finally, James mentions those who have ‘fattened their hearts in the day of slaughter’. These individuals may not be directly responsible for the slaughter, but they have chosen to sit by and reap the benefits of it whilst doing nothing to help those being oppressed. It has been said that when an elephant stands on a mouse’s tail, to declare yourself neutral is to side with the elephant. The same is true in matters of oppression.

In today’s world, much of this is worked out on a global as well as a local level. We must be aware of global injustices and we must do what we can for the oppressed. It is good to stand up for the oppressed in our buying habits, our advocacy and our prayers. As we fight for them we will joini with God in his passionate care for the poor.

Though the words James uses are harsh, they reflect a deep passion in God’s heart. When we live our lives fighting for those with least, we will find ourselves standing side by side with our passionate God in fighting their corner, and that is good news.

Potential Applications:

  • There is a wide ranging challenge here for how we engage with global injustice. You could throw out suggestions of how we can make choices that have a positive impact on needy communities.
  • You might want to make this message coincide with a special offering for the poor where people can practically contribute.
  • Often people can feel passive guilt over the suffering of others. There is a balance to strike and you want to encourage people to do what they can whilst trusting God in issues that they have no ability to influence.