Parents of teenagers know the dilemma. You see your teens going down a path that will bring them pain and grief. You’ve tried to warn them, tried to make them understand what lies ahead. But the more you push, the more they push back. “You just don’t understand,” they say, as you think to yourself, You’re right, I don’t! Who would? “You don’t care about my feelings,” they add, leaving you in a quandary: If I tell them to stop doing what they’re doing, they’ll reject me for being insensitive. But if don’t tell them, something worse is bound to happen. What do I do?
There are no simple answers here. Much depends on whether you’ve already established a strong bond of trust over the years, in which your kids know they can tell you anything without losing your love. That doesn’t mean you agree with or condone their behavior, but it does mean that you will never turn your back on them, and they know it.
And let’s face it: we can all do a better job of managing our own fears. Maybe disaster will fall and we need to wake them up to the danger. Maybe it won’t. But we need to keep enough of a rein on our own rising sense of panic to focus our attention on understanding who our child is becoming: their hopes, dreams, fears, and feelings. The more they sense that you really want to understand, that you’re really listening, the more willing they will be to listen to you.
They may not look like they’re listening. They may feel duty-bound to roll their eyes at everything you say (somewhere, it’s in a charter of adolescence). But don’t take the bait. If the relationship is solid, trust it; they’ll ponder your words in their own time, and in their own way.
Why do I raise such issues? Because the apostle James is in a similar dilemma. He loves the people to whom he writes. He wants the absolute best for them in their lives and their walk with God. But they are going down the wrong road, and disaster looms on the horizon. What does he do? What can he say? Does he risk alienating his readers with strong and insistent language?
Apparently so. He is so alarmed at their behavior that he channels the tone and tenor of the Old Testament prophets, saying whatever is needed to awaken them from their spiritual slumber:
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure during the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6, NRSVUE)
“Come now,” he begins, as he addresses the “have-yachts,” just as he did in the previous chapter with the “haves,” the merchant class: Pay attention; wake up; this is important. These are the people with all the trappings of upper-crust wealth: fine clothing, gold and silver, poor laborers who work their land. But like other selfish or corrupt landowners of the Roman Empire, they have not dealt justly with the people who work for them. James’ language is unsparing: You’re guilty of fraud, because you haven’t paid fair wages. You’re guilty of murder, because you’ve used your power and position for your own benefit, even if it means others must die of starvation to support your life of luxury.
Scholars disagree as to whether James actually means murder, and whether the people he’s addressing are Christians. It would be quite odd though, in the context of the letter as a whole, for him to be addressing people outside the church here. Thus, we must grapple with the harsh reality that Christians sometimes embody the worst possible business ethics.
Surely that’s not news.
James leverages the collective memory of Jewish Christians to whom he writes. Remember the story of the first sin after Eden, of Cain murdering Abel, of Abel’s blood crying out from the ground? The wages of those you’ve defrauded are crying out too. And to whom do they cry? The Lord of Hosts, the commander of the heavenly armies. Do you think he’s going to turn a deaf ear? No, the Lord of Hosts is going to rise up in judgment against you. The day of reckoning is coming, friend.
We might not consider ourselves wealthy, nor unethical in our dealings with others, but none of us are immune to the short-sightedness James sees in the church. We all need to wake up to the bigger picture that wealth — or even the desire for it — obscures. As we’ll see, he also leverages the teaching of Jesus to make his point.
Meanwhile, if James has to go full-on Elijah to do it, he will.
(Prophecy being proclaimed by a professional. Please do not try this at home.)