Like many people, I love a good story, especially one with a good plot and fully developed characters. These days, I’m partial to well-written memoirs, but have devoured my share of fiction. Whether print books, e-books, or audiobooks, movies, streaming series, or anime, I’m a sucker for good storytelling. And I’ll endure many twists and turns of the plot for the payoff of a satisfying ending.
Not all endings, of course, are satisfying. Some books and movies leave me feeling cheated. I know people who are so keen to avoid being disappointed that way again that they read the last chapter of every new book first; only then do they decide whether to go back and start from the beginning. I’ve never done that myself; that feels like cheating.
But the Bible, the story of God’s relationship to his creation, has no such reservation. We are told, albeit in sometimes cryptic terms, how the story ends. Without that knowledge, our hope would be aimless. Misdirected. Feeble, or even non-existent. Hope empowers our imagination in the present, enables us to see our lives in the context of God’s story.
That’s important, because the last chapter has already begun.
Previously, we’ve seen how James chastises the wealthiest members of the church for their oppressive and unjust behavior toward the poor who work for them. He thunders with the intensity of Elijah, accusing them of fraud and murder, warning them that God will bring them to rack and ruin. In the midst of these dire predictions, James writes:
You have laid up treasure during the last days. (James 5:3, NRSVUE)
“The last days.” This is not meant to as a prediction of the date and time of Jesus’ return, as if James were saying, “Jesus is due back a week from Thursday, so you’d best be ready.” It means something more like, “The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has shown us that the last chapter of the story of God’s kingdom has begun. Live accordingly.”
The richest of believers have lived lives of luxury and excess, as if that were the whole purpose of their existence. They’re still playing the game of social status, and playing to win, like Monopoly fiends bending every effort to build hotels on both Boardwalk and Park Place. In so doing, they’ve made their own life stories of financial success primary, relegating God’s story to the margins. As I’ve said so often on this blog, they have demoted God to being a character in their own heroic stories instead of understanding themselves as characters in God’s story, a story that has reached its final chapter.
That chapter, of course, includes judgment. The rich will be held accountable for how they have treated the poor, for as the Old Testament insists again and again, God is the champion of the poor, needy, and oppressed. Their outcry has reached God’s ears, the God whom James calls “the Lord of hosts” (5:4). He doesn’t mean, of course, that God is in charge of the hospitality suite. He is reminding them that God is, in Eugene Peterson’s memorable phrase, “the God of Angel Armies.”
That’s not a God you want to have rise up in judgment against you. James is unsparing in his language; as we’ve seen, he wants people to wake up to the disaster that will befall them, and is not above using somewhat terrifying language: “Weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you” (5:1).
I suspect that in the back of his mind, James would say, And none of this should be a surprise to you if you call Jesus Lord.
But in case they’ve forgotten, James reminds them of what Jesus taught, as we’ll see in the next post.