Although James 5 seems to offer several disjointed topics, James actually presents two images for how we live. The first image is of a self-indulgent rich person and the second is of a patient farmer. While these two people are not seeking the same end result, they are living out the same question: “What am I counting on?” In other words, “Where do I put my hope?”
In James 5:1-6, James warns the rich about storing up rotting treasures, and gold and silver that will corrode. This warning sounds familiar to Jesus’s words in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21
This is not only a warning to the rich, but to anyone storing up earthly possessions. Just because we might not consider ourselves living in luxury does not mean we can count ourselves out of this warning. Rather, if we find ourselves “liv[ing] on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence,” then we see that this warning is for us. Both James 5 and Matthew 6 comment on the consequences of counting on treasures. Jesus goes on in Matthew 6 to warn against being anxious about daily needs, focusing instead on how our Good Father provides for the lillies and the sparrows and James says the laborers of the rich will cry out against them. Where does this “rich person” put their hope and what are they counting on? By making life comfortable, predictable, and safe, they are counting on finances, materials, and self-sufficiency. The consequence of relying on ourselves and material riches not only makes us anxious, but it leads to our neglecting of the others around us. What are we counting on?
Next, James says, “Be patient, therefore brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” and this is where we start to wonder if this all connects. James then presents us with a counter image to how the rich person lived, a farmer who waits for the fruit of his fields. The farmer plows and plants and then waits for the rains to come. The farmer relies on the rain to produce good crops. James says this is how we should wait for the coming of the Lord. Waiting with expectation and with patience. Rather than focusing on storing up earthly things at all costs, James says to have a heavenly focus that waits expectantly for God because that is Who we are counting on.
More than this, James says to count on God even in suffering. He points to the prophets and to Job as biblical examples of people who suffered yet remained reliant on the Lord. The prophets experienced resistance and rebuke of others, and Job experienced unprecedented loss and tragedy. The reason for counting on God even in suffering is because it points others to the purposes and characteristics of God: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).
When reading the prophets and Job, we see that another reason to count on God is that God can be counted on. After Job hears from his friends, the Lord speaks to Job, asking him questions like, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) and, “Who sends the rain to satisfy the parched ground and makes the tender grass spring up?” (Job 39:27). The Lord shows Job that as humans we are not all-knowing, all-present, or all-powerful and then for two chapters the Lord shows Job that He is all-knowing, all-present, and-all powerful. The Lord can be counted on, even in times of suffering.
While we are waiting on the Lord, like the farmer waiting for the rain, James reminds us to be present and committed to where we are: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (James 5:12). The coming of the Lord is our great hope and Christ’s second return is why we wait expectantly. Until that time, however, the coming of the Lord in our daily lives is when we are not sure how something will work out and yet the Lord comes through in His own way, each and every time.
James concludes his letter by driving home the call to count on the Lord. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray” (James 5:13-14). In other words, if life is in the valleys right now, then go to God; if life is exciting, then go to God; if this physical life is difficult to live in, go to God. James says faithful prayer will save us. After reading the rest of James 5, we can see that faithful prayer does not work only because we pray with faith, but because the Lord to whom we pray is faithful. That is why we can pray during suffering and praise during celebration, and why we can seek healing.
Lastly, even in our sin we can count on God. Adam and Eve counted on their ability to hide from God and fashioned clothes to cover themselves–we can easily count on our good works to save us. However, James again points us back to God: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). We can confess our sins to God and to each other because our God is the Redeemer. If we use the paradigm given by Zach’s teaching on James 1, we see that because God is Redeemer He convicts, and because we are convicted we respond and are sanctified. In other words, we confess and we receive grace. We do not have to hide ashamed of our sins. God is Redeemer, so we can go to Him and receive both conviction and mercy. We can count on God despite our sins.
The final image in James takes us back to the farmer waiting on the rain. However, this time it is Elijah who prays fervently for rain. James even says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (5:17). Elijah’s prayer was not heard because he was outstanding, but he was heard because he counted on God to send rain. God was faithful.
James begins the final chapters of his letter with an image of what it looks like when we count on ourselves and what we can manufacture. Then James shows us what it looks like to count on God, why it is worth counting on God, and what happens when God has all of our lives.
“So friends, everyday do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love somebody who does not deserve it
…Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts
– Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor