Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, 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 self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)
There is a running theme in the Bible that if you are rich, you are in trouble. Great miseries are coming upon you. Wealth corrupts, we know. Even the ungodly will say so. Money rots our souls. It seems that when we stand before the Lord on Judgment Day our wealth will be evidence against us, and we will perish. This is not good news for residents of the wealthiest country in the world, in all of history. A couple weeks ago, we discussed how storing up earthly treasures for yourself would be the same as to sabotage yourself. Your soul is required of you now! the Lord may say, and all that earthly wealth isn't going to do you a bit of good! Worse, the scriptures seem to say that because you are rich, you must have exploited the poor. You must have defrauded them, somehow, and so they have cried out to the Lord, and their evidence is going to be used against you, too! A double jeopardy on your soul!
We know that this exploitation does not hold true in the real world. Just because one is poor does not mean that he or she was exploited by someone who is rich, and just because one is rich does not mean that he or she has exploited the poor. Our success in life--this is purely from a secular standpoint--is based on our life decisions. Good choices in life bring success. Bad choices bring poverty. If this is true for the tangible world, then "rich" and "poor" must mean something else in the scriptures, too. God is truth. If the rich aren't exploiting the poor just by being rich, then God knows this, too, and he wouldn't lie in his word. The beatitudes help us understand the difference. Here is the version from Luke:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)
The first blessing and woe seem to be monetarily matched. Poor v. Rich in wealth. The focus it that the poor receive the kingdom of heaven, and the rich won't. The next juxtaposition is between hunger and plenty. The idea is that those who hunger will be satisfied in heaven, while the satisfied will lose theirs. Next, we have weeping v. laughing. Same upending of the status quo is going to happen in the next life. Finally is the big one, being hated v. being loved on earth results in the opposite later. Taking all of this together, we can see that it is not rich v. poor at stake. It is worldly v. godly. The worldly are usually, but not always, rich, well fed, happy, and spoken well of in this earthly life. The godly are usually, but not always, poor, hungry, weeping, and hated by the world. Remember, a key phrase spoken by Jesus here is "on account of the Son of Man!" The poor that Jesus is talking about here are not necessarily monetarily poor but poor in spirit, hungry in spirit, weeping in spirit, hated in spirit, because of Jesus himself. Likewise, the rich are not necessarily monetarily rich, but are rich in worldliness, healthy, happy, and loved on this earth--because they deny the truth of Christ. Again, it's all about how we respond to Jesus Christ. The rich are those who reject him, and their earthly lives improve and go well. The poor are those who embrace Christ, and their earthly lives are filled with trials and tribulations. The poor are not poor because they are exploited by the rich, but they are poor because they are IN CHRIST, and Christ has been rejected by the world. If you are in Christ, you are the poor, and the world hates you and reviles you.
The exploitation of Israel by Egypt is a typology of the overall situation of Christians. In Exodus 3, God tells Moses, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10).” Egypt doesn't represent the rich and Israel the poor. Egypt represents the world and Israel God's children, those who are in Christ. Moses stands in for Christ himself, who will bring his children out of the world and into their everlasting inheritance. What follows is a typology of the last days of earth, the ten plagues being the destruction of the world, along with it's "rich," and the protection and freedom of the "poor", the sojourners on earth, the ones who don't belong, because they are Christ's, and they are hated by the world.
That is on the last day. That is the gathering of God's children. Christ doesn't have to work on that day. All he has to do is show up--arrive--and gather up his chicks, his sheep, his wheat. Christ's work has already been done, and James reveals this work in the last verse of our section: "You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you." James is not talking about a poor man but THE poor man, Jesus Christ himself. Exodus may point to the last days, but Jesus' work was not that of Moses, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. Jesus' work was that of the perfect lamb that was slaughtered and its blood spread around the doorframes of the houses of the Israelites. The heavy work of Christ has already been done, to set apart his people for salvation by dying in their place. God will pass over his children, his saved, when the day of destruction comes. In Acts, Peter explains this to a crowd of people:
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:13-15)
And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:17-21)
The great news is that the poor and rich are not determined by outward circumstances. The great news is that all of us are born rich, and we all are guilty of denying Christ. But hearing the glorious gospel, such as Peter relates above, will change our hearts, if the Holy Spirit wills. All of us are guilty, but Christ has died for those who believe in him, who repent of their sins, who turn from their wickedness and live. Become poor, brothers and sisters. Suffer as Christ suffered. Cover yourself in his blood and and get "in Christ." Reject the world and become its enemy. Put your faith in the one who saves you.