Without a doubt, I am one of the richest men in the world. Literally, not figuratively. No, I’ve never met Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates doesn’t have me on speed dial. But I am a middle-class American with a steady job and a decent income, and have been working long enough that my mortgage is paid off. By global standards, these things in themselves put me in the economic stratosphere of the world’s population.
By American standards? A little less so. Still, deeply lodged in the American imagination is the idea of upward mobility: the cultural myth that anyone willing to work hard can climb the ladder of success. That idea, I suspect, has become increasingly hard to believe during the pandemic. But it’s still part of the shame and frustration of feeling like you’re not where you want to be, or even where someone (who, exactly?) thinks you’re supposed to be.
In some ways, the picture looks a little different in the world of the New Testament. The idea of an upwardly mobile middle-class was possible, but only in urban centers like Corinth, where there was a population of artisans, freed slaves, and the like. For the most part, society was sharply divided between the haves and the have-nots.
And that social distinction colored the life of the church, even in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 11, for example, Paul chastises the church for their behavior around the Lord’s Supper: in essence, the wealthy were doing things that disenfranchised and shamed their poorer brothers and sisters. The insult was not intentional; it was a product of the social privilege they took for granted, coupled with a certain cluelessness about the feelings of others. For Paul, it was a sign that the truth of the congregation’s identity as one body in Christ hadn’t yet penetrated their way of thinking and being — ironically, not even when they came together to remember the body and blood of Jesus.
So too with the letter of James. Having written about the possibility of joy even in the midst of trials, James seems to offer poverty as an example:
Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status. Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status, because they will die off like wildflowers. The sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass so that its flowers fall and its beauty is lost. Just like that, in the midst of their daily lives, the wealthy will waste away. (James 1:9-11, CEB)
The idea that the poor should be glad because of their “high status” would surely have sounded as odd and counterintuitive as James’ earlier teaching that difficult tests should be seen as occasions for joy! But here, James echoes the teaching of Jesus, who declared that both the “poor in spirit” and those who were just plain poor were blessed by God (Matt 5:3; Luke 6:20) — because God’s kingdom belonged to them. And if that wasn’t enough to get people’s attention, Jesus turned right around and said, “But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24).
If Jesus had had a publicist, he probably would have been told, “It’s better not to say those kinds of things if you want to be an influencer.”
To make his point, James draws upon an image with which his readers would have been familiar: a beautiful field of grass and wildflowers, turned dry and lifeless by the scorching sun and wind (cf. also Isa 40:8). It reminds me of the spectacular “superblooms” you can occasionally see in Southern California deserts. The ground is carpeted with brilliant color — until the desert sun turns it all into various dull shades of brown.
So it is with all the things that make us “wealthy” in the worldly sense of the word: beautiful now, dust later.
When Jesus said, “How terrible for you who are rich,” I doubt that many of them found “satisfaction in their low status.” James’ words will be nearly nonsensical to people who take their social privilege for granted. It’s not just that we don’t see how being low status can be a good thing; it’s that we don’t believe we’re low status in the first place.
And to be clear: being low status isn’t a good thing in itself. Would any sane person rejoice in being told that they would “die off” or “waste away”? What James is wanting to do is to shift our values from the temporal to the eternal; what matters is what lasts.
We’ll explore the personal application of that truth in the next post.