Oppression of Workers (James 5:1–6)
James returns to the principle that work must serve the needs of others. His words in the beginning of chapter 5 are scathing. He warns “the rich” to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you” (James 5:1). While the gold in their vaults and the robes in their closets may look as shiny as ever, James is so certain of their coming judgment that he can speak as if their riches were already decomposing: “Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted” (James 5:2–3). Their self-indulgence has succeeded only in “fattening” them “for the day of slaughter” (James 5:5). The day of slaughter seems to be a reference to the day in which God judges those whom he called to lead and care for his people, but who preyed on them instead (Zech. 11:4–7).
These rich people are doomed both for how they acquired their wealth and for what they did (or didn’t do) with it once they had it. James echoes the Old Testament as he excoriates them for their unjust business practices: “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” (James 5:4; cf. Lev. 19:13). Money that should be in the hands of laborers sits instead in the treasuries of the landowners. And there it stays—they hoard their wealth and ignore the needy around them (James 5:3).
Business leaders must be especially diligent about paying their workers fairly. An analysis of what constitutes fair pay is beyond the scope of this discussion, but James’s words “the wages you have kept back by fraud” (James 5:4) are an accusation of abuse of power on the part of these particular wealthy landowners. The workers were owed wages, but the rich and powerful found a way out of paying them without incurring punishment by the legal system. The rich and powerful often have means to subvert the judiciary, and it’s astonishingly easy to exercise unfair power without even recognizing it. Abuses of power include misclassifying employees as independent contractors, inaccurately registering workers in a lower skill code, paying women or minorities less for doing the same job as others, and using children for jobs so dangerous that adults refuse to do them. Misuse of power can never be excused just because it is a so-called standard practice.
James also condemns those who “have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure” (James 5:5). The question of what constitutes living in luxury and in pleasure is also complex, but it confronts many Christians in one way or another. James’s chief concern in this passage is the well-being of the poor, so the most relevant question may be, “Does the way I live enhance or diminish the lives of poor people? Does what I do with money help lift people out of poverty or does it help keep people impoverished?”
Leviticus 19 is one of James’s favorite Old Testament passages; see Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 123ff.