Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
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 for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers 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 fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
The Letter of James is theology from below. It speaks from the grimy hut where migrant workers live, from the soup queue, from the broken housing on the edge of town, for the families with no bread-winner, for people who sleep cold on the street. It seems to come from an era in the Holy Land, possibly the 50s or 60s AD, when big landowners were getting bigger and everyone else was sliding down – from smallholding to tenancy, to day-labouring and debt, and on to begging, destitution, the gutter and the grave.
So these verses are a howl of protest, against hard hearts and greedy eyes. Planning, pomp, profit – you cannot live by these alone. Even the powerful need to pray, and look to God. When they do (it says elsewhere in the Letter), they might start to look with compassion and respect on their neighbour.
Who works for you, is another of James’ questions. What are these workers paid? Does it all get paid on time? Or is a mighty debt owed to the poor and to God, by people who are more used to owning the world and the world owing them? For God listens in the shack and the shanty. God cares about decent reward for honest work, for harvests that are truly shared, for generosity and justice with the goodness of earth.
So is there a question for you and me, about what we have and where it comes from, about how we plan and what we hope for, about whom we share with, and about what God thinks of it all? If those questions linger in our minds, it might just be God who put them there.
God of justice, please help us to see through your eyes: to see human worth and need; to see what we owe – to others, to justice, to you; to see the smallness of our own ambitions, and the greatness of your judgment and love. For Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
The Revd John Proctor is General Secretary of the URC, and a member of Emmanuel URC, Cambridge.