Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. (James 5:1-5)
In the final chapter of James (and verses 1-5 in particular), the author has some strong words of warning for the rich and powerful. In verse 4, James condemns how the “rich” he’s addressing in this passage acquired their wealth, by unfairly withholding wages from their workers. While this isn’t the place to comment on what does and does not constitute “fair pay,” it is important for us Christians to be cognizant of both overt and subtle abuses of power that might put us into the category of those James is condemning. Modern day examples of these abuses in pay include misclassifying workers as contractors instead of employees and paying women and minorities less for doing the same job as others.
In verse 4, James appears to be admonishing employers exclusively. But in verses 1, 2, 3 and 5, James has words of warning for anyone who is more privileged, powerful, and wealthy than somebody else, sharply criticizing the hoarding of wealth, as well as “self-indulgence” and living “in luxury.” The question of what constitutes luxury and over indulgence is a complex and personal one. But when reading these verses, it’s important to keep in mind that James’s chief concern in this passage (and much of the book) is the poor. So, a good question to ask to discern whether or not we are ones James is calling “self-indulgent” may be “Does the way I spend my personal wealth and the profits of my business endeavors enhance or diminish the lives of the poor?”
Finally, as busy, ambitious professionals, we would be wise to take James’s words in verses 2 and 3 to heart, remembering that the wealth we accumulate in this life will fade away. But the acts of service we do unto others won’t. And that is really the heart of the entire book of James. When you and I love our neighbors and employers by doing our work exceptionally well and when we focus on the needs of the powerless and poor above our own careers, we are living more closely in line with the image of Christ, glorifying the Father, and storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20).