Some people are rule-followers, and others, well, aren’t — or at least they’re willing to bend or ignore the rules when convenient. Generally, I fall in the former category: I count the items in my shopping cart before going to the express checkout line. Unfortunately, I sometimes also find myself counting the items in someone else’s cart, and judging them according to the tally.
And then I get in my car, going over the speed limit as I drive home. Just like everyone else, I pick which rules to follow, which to break, and when. I wonder who’s silently judging me as I zoom past?
The problem with making morality about rule-following is that it encourages a kind of self-righteousness that misses the point. Self-serving misunderstandings of righteousness were at the heart of Jesus’ conflict with the members of the religious establishment who opposed him, people who were proud of their punctilious observation of the law and aghast at Jesus’ seemingly lackadaisical attitude. He lets his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath! He eats and fellowships with the riff-raff! Scandalous!
That’s not to say, of course, that rules don’t matter. As we’ve seen, James accuses rich Christians of fraudulent business practices and even murder, warning them of the judgment to come. But what they do on the outside is a product of who they are on the inside. As he’s already taught, conflict without is a sign of conflict within; unregulated desire leads to murder (James 4:1-2). Their behavior is not merely a sign of their carelessness with rules, but a lack of wisdom, humility, and love.
James uses intense language, a rhetorical slap to their conscience:
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. (James 5:2-3, NRSVUE)
Gold and silver, fine clothing: these are the typical signs of wealth. Church folk were keenly aware of these status symbols. Again, the “haves” wanted to cozy up to the “have yachts,” effectively keeping the “have-nots” at the bottom of the social ladder. James doesn’t say, but I imagine that the have-yachts soaked up the attention; it confirmed their superior status.
And when you’re at the top of the ladder, you can get away with a lot.
Maybe even fraud and murder.
But James’ choice of words should also remind us immediately of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21)
Or we might think of the incident in Luke 12, in which a man asked Jesus to settle a squabble he was having with his brother over the family inheritance. Jesus refused to play mediator or judge, and instead told a parable about a rich man who hoarded his wealth and took comfort in his luxurious lifestyle. He is labeled a fool, blind to his own mortality and the fleeting nature of his wealth. The parable ends with a somber punchline:
So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God. (Luke 12:21)
James doesn’t directly call the have-yachts “foolish,” but in the context of his letter their behavior can be understood as one more example of a lack of godly wisdom. They have prided themselves in their wealth and status. They have treated their servants as disposable, perhaps even seeing their own exalted status as license to do as they please. Their hearts were given to their earthly treasure, and they were not rich toward God.
It’s possible to read James in such a way that makes his prophetic thundering about someone else. I don’t have a yacht. I’m not super-rich. I don’t have servants. And I certainly am not guilty of fraud or murder! But to the extent that James is echoing the teaching of Jesus, the larger message is we are all tempted to legalistic self-righteousness and the pursuit of earthly treasure. Our heart, our passions, our desires can be misplaced, regardless of how scrupulous we are about rules, regardless of the size of our bank account.
What’s really important to me? What’s really important to God? What do I need to change? If we keep asking ourselves such questions, we might learn a bit more wisdom.