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The Self-Indulging, the Self-Effacing, and Brethren

An apostrophe is a literary figure in which the speaker addresses some abstract quality or a person who is absent. One example from Scripture would be the chiding of Death by Paul: death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Cor 15.55) The Roman orator, Quintilian, relates how Cicero would sometimes use an apostrophe in a legal address. In fact, on one occasion, Cicero abruptly turned from the judges and spoke for an imaginary person: Cicero in his defense of Scaurus, . . . actually introduces an imaginary person speaking on behalf of the accused (IV.i.69).

In the fifth chapter of James, a direct address opens the chapter, dividing all of mankind into two categories --- we belong either to the self-indulging or to the self-effacing. The self-centered rich are addressed first in strong emotional language. A rhetorical apostrophe abruptly identifies both the contrivances as well as the perpetrators who both initiated or made the most of all circumstances:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!

James 5.1

These words go far beyond criticism or even stern condemnation. The cry here is of doom; a doom unmistakably reminiscent of the prophetic denunciations found in the Old Testament. The language is not a call for reform. Rather their fate is sealed; their destiny, certain. Unlike those who were careless with their wealth and selfish extravagance, these were quite careful about style and leisure, yet their meticulousness could not prevent their luxury from degenerating into something horrid and deadly.

The wealth they accumulated brought them to a heinous loss. In whatever ways prosperity may be measured, whether by affluent lifestyle, by fashionable clothes, or by assets of silver and gold, the moment has come in which the true value of such possessions must now be registered. Like extravagances that are rotten, or clothes that are moth-eaten, or precious metals that have turned to rust, nothing is left. Everything once highly valued has become of no value. Like the appetites in which they once so avidly indulged, their prestige and possessions have now themselves decayed, and bringing with that decay a putrid rottenness to the very owners who once had so highly prized them (Jas 5.2-3). Rather than using their wealth, these selfishly stored it away, only to discover that what they had stored away was their own destruction. Gone forever are the finer and generous qualities of life and of soul.

Hoarding wealth, though, is not the only way to mistreat others. It is easy to postpone paying a day laborer, or even cheat him at court. He simply does not have the resources to resist. By not paying him on time, though, allows wealth to accumulate more wealth. That is how money makes money.

Yet his pitiful cry of desperation has been heard. Heard by the Lord of Sabaoth; a military image in which the Lord stands at the head of His army (Jas 5.4). The battle of retribution is about to be unleashed. This scene of reckoning is similar in some respects to what Josephus would recall decades later during the siege of Jerusalem; with the city besieged, under attack and completely surrounded by the impending foreign army.

“But as for the richer sort, it proved all one to them whether they stayed in the city, or attempted to get out of it; for they were equally destroyed in both cases; for every such person was put to death under this pretense, that they were going to desert, but in reality that the robbers might get what they had. The madness of the seditious did also increase together with their famine, and both those miseries were every day inflamed more and more; for there was no corn which any where appeared publicly, but the robbers came running into, and searched men’s private houses; and then if they found any, they tormented them, because they had denied they had any; and if they found none, they tormented them worse, because they supposed they had more carefully concealed it.”

Josephus, The Jewish Wars, Book 5, Chapter 10

But wait… there is more.

Luxurious living inevitably leads to slaughter (Jas 5.5-6). Extravagance and indulgence must come first, legally deposing or even disposing of the honorable and well-intentioned man. To put it simply --- the honorable man has no means of escape; no other options. His ideals and honor are used against him. The frivolous lifestyle may easily run over all who obstruct its way, but the ultimate slaughter is the person who lived for luxury, extravagance, and prosperity. Having spent it on themselves, they have nothing left.

Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

James 4.17

Also awaiting judgment stands another class of people. And these, too, are introduced by the same literary figure of direct address.

Brethren, we are to be patient, then, of difficulties and annoyances. Especially when the hardships are caused by other people. Rather than waiting for people to change, we are to wait for the coming of the Lord. Indeed, just as the farmer must wait for the seasonal rain to complete his harvest, we must also be patient. We must settle and secure our hearts. The coming of the Lord approaches (Jas 5.7-8).

Brethren, harboring deep feelings of rancor and bitterness towards one another may well lead to our own condemnation. After all, riches are not the only thing than can be stored up for judgment. The Judge stands at the door in readiness (Jas 5.9).

My brethren, even the prophets who spoke on behalf of God were subjected to privation and loss. Take their example of both the presence of suffering and the triumph of patience. Rather than acting hastily, calmly await the final result. Indeed, we esteem those who meet adversity with resolve and persist through it (Jas 5.10-11).

You have heard of the patience of Job. And you have seen the final end of the Lord --- the Lord is compassionate toward the grieving and merciful toward the repentant.

What comes easily, we do not appreciate. What we must struggle for, we value and cherish.