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Just Wage: Jesus' Warning to the Rich in James 5

by Brant Pitre September 04, 2019 0 Comments



So fast forward now to chapter 5. In chapter 5:1, James continues to critique some of the sinfulness of the people to whom he’s writing, and in chapter 5 he turns away from backbiting and gossip among people to the question of the oppression of the poor by some of the rich among his audience. And this is what he says:

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 rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, 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. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.

Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

You always see that in the apostolic preaching: Paul, we’ve seen it in Peter; this recognition that this world is coming to an end and that we are waiting for Christ to return and that he is coming soon.

As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

So what he seems to be doing in this case is talking both to those who are oppressing, the rich in this case, and also to those who are being oppressed and encouraging them to be patient, to have endurance, that the lord will come and he will render out justice. He will come at the parousia to render out the justice of the final judgment. And again I wanted to highlight this second passage because this passage is also discussed in the Catechism as a key text for James. So if you flip back with me to page 23 of the notes, I just want to highlight this for you. There’s a section in the moral teaching of the Catechism (on the bottom of page 23 in your notes) that talks about certain particularly grave sins. The Catechism calls them “the sins that cry out to heaven”, in other words these are particularly grave sins that God is going to render justice to those who commit them. And the Catechism in paragraph 1867 says this:

The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are "sins that cry to heaven”:

And it lists the following:

the blood of Abel,

So that would be what?  The murder of the innocent. Number 2:

the sin of the Sodomites,

And we’ve talked about the sexual sin of the Sodomites in Genesis 19 back in the Pentateuch class. Number 3:

the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt,

So the oppression of slavery. Number 4:

the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan,

So this would be the oppression of who? Immigrants, and in particular of the weakest among them, widows (so women who are without protection), and children who are without protection. Those sins are particularly close to God’s heart. They cry out to him for justice to be done in this world. And then the final one (notice this) is taken straight from James:

injustice to the wage earner.

And that’s Deuteronomy 24 and James 5:4. So this lays a very important foundation (this quote from James) for the social teaching of the Church. That as Christians, we must (not should or might), we must be committed to just wages, especially for laborers; agricultural laborers, the people in the field who are often easily taken advantage of. This is part of the social teaching of the Church; this is part of the revelation of sacred scripture going all the way back not just to the Old Testament, but in particular to James. And you can see James is taking this very seriously:

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. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure…

They’re going hungry and they’re not able to feed their families. God will mete out justice to those who don’t give just wages to the laborer. Any type of activity the Church is engaged in, when people are laboring, St. Paul says it: “the laborer deserves his wages.” It’s not an arbitrary thing and if you know, if you’ve been in the Church, this is one of the things we really don’t always do that well with. I think that’s probably fair to say. And it’s sometimes minimized, but the scripture doesn’t minimize it, right? It’s a matter of justice, to pay people their due for the labor that they give. And we’re getting that again from the Apostle James.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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