Last night I read Matt Taibbi’s recent article in Rolling Stone, “Greed and Debt.” I  couldn’t help but call to mind the Epistle of James, especially 5:1–6.

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Listen! 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. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (NRSV)

The structure of this condemnation of the rich traditionally falls into one of two outlines. The first outline arranges the passage into a two-fold division.  The first portion announces and illustrates the “coming miseries” of the rich men (vv. 1–3).  The second portion then describes the incriminating actions of the rich that led to their miseries (vv. 4–6). With some varying, especially with v. 3d (some say part of description, others part of reasons), the outline looks something like this:

  1. Announcement of miseries (v. 1)
  2. Description of miseries: a) rotted wealth [vv. 2–3a]; b) witness and testimony of rust [v. 3b–c]; c) worthlessness of treasuring [v. 3d]
  3. Reasons for miseries: a) withholding wages [v. 4]; b) living luxuriously [v. 5]; c) murdering the righteous [v. 6]

The second outline frames the passage into a list of accusations leveled on the rich.  The number of charges is varied depending on whether one chooses to delineate v. 5 as a separate accusation or as part of the accusation in v. 4.  After the announcement of miseries in v. 1, the general list of accusations would appear as follows:

  1. Hoarding (vv. 2–3)
  2. Withholding (v. 4)
  3. Living luxuriously (v. 5)
  4. Murdering (v. 6)

I have thought for a long time now that there was more going on in this passage than just a list or two of miseries and accusations. What initially strikes me are how the various objects actually turn against the rich. Rust witnesses against them and eats their flesh like fire. The cries of the wages and the harvesters reach the ears of the Lord. So the very things the rich hoard and withhold become witnesses against them. Another striking feature of the pericope are the two eschatological notes: laying up treasure for the the last days, and fattening hearts for the day of slaughter.

What I notice, then, is a move from accusation to ironical twist to an eschatological statement of folly. For instance, the rich hoard (accusation); the very thing they hoard witnesses against them (irony); and they have hoarded for the last days in which their treasures are in fact useless (folly). Or, the rich withhold (accusation); the very thing they withhold and those from which they withhold cry out against them (irony); and by withholding they get to live luxuriously on the earth in order to fatten their hearts for the day when such fattening makes them prime for slaughter (folly).

This structure of mine works well for vv. 2–5. It’s the dangling v. 6 that raises questions. The accusation is clear enough: the rich murder the righteous. The irony, however, is not immediately clear, and the folly is missing completely. Following  Luis Alonso Schökel and others, the last phrase of v. 6—”who does not resist you”—can be read as a question—”Does he not resist you?” If so, then like the rust, wages, and harvesters, the murdered righteous one in an ironical twist opposes the rich. Martin Klein writes,  “The essence would then be that the righteous act as plaintiff (Kläger) in the court (Gericht), so to speak; even as the judge (lit. “executor of judgment,” Urteilsvollstrecker) against the rich.”  The audience by this time in James’s indictment should be aware that the role of the righteous is the role of witness.  Like the withheld wages, the murdered righteous continue to cry out to the divine Judge. The understood folly, I believe, is that the rich are performing all these treacheries in a day of judgment.

What this all might have to do with leverage buyouts that leave normal everyday workers high and dry while fattening the pocketbooks (if not also the hearts!) of executives is left for readers to consider. I do know that the epistle of James has more to say about the matter of rich and poor.

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?