Adolfo Ham is a Cuban Presbyterian and advocate of conscientization. This is the text of a short address he gave to the Caribbean Conference of Churches in 1996. The overall title of the meeting was “Biblical reflections on Economics and Faith.” The CCC is a branch of the World Council of Churches.
Warnings to the rich
“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 labourers 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.” ( James 5:1-6)
In the epistle of James the link between poverty-oppression-plunder-violence is very clear. The oppressed are mainly the poor, widows, orphans, peasants. The “twelve tribes of the Dispersion” (1:1) to whom the letter is addressed are those Christians who because of their faith were marginalised and excluded from their personal and civil rights. But it appears that some of them were rich, while the majority of the community were poor. (2:15; 2:2; 1:27)
The rich are mentioned three times, always in very negative terms. (1:10-11; 2:6-7; and 5:1-6). For James the poor are “the rich in faith and the heirs of the kingdom”. (2:5). The poor will not become rich, rather they will be exalted, restored to their human dignity, while the rich will perish with their possessions. The fact that God is in “solidarity with the poor” is very well illustrated when, in the epistle, Rahad the “pagan prostitute” woman is compared with Abraham the patriarch! (2:25). The only hope for the rich is to become humble, to repent, to cleanse their hands. (4:6-10). The poor to whom the letter is addressed are those “who have stood the test, and will receive the crown of life”. (1:12).
The text is in the best tradition of Old testament prophecy.
( Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying,
‘When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat’ skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat’. Etc. Amos 8:4-8; and
Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper room by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour. He says,’ I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms. So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord. But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion. Jeremiah 22:13-17).
But it is also reflected in the teachings of our Master. (The Rich young Man -Mk 10:17-31; the Sermon on the Mount -Mt 6:24-34; the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man – Lk 16;19-31) . the text also reminds us of the narrative of the judgement against the Great Babylon (Rome) and its wealthy merchants in Revelation 17.
The denunciation of the rich by James is very strong. They should expect the reversal of their fortune; soon they will be in great misery: their gold and jewels “have spoiled”, their luxurious garments are rags; even the gold and silver which never rust, are now rusted: what they accumulated will become evidence against them at the final judgement. They have simply stolen the wages of their workers – “the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord”. The cry is the same cry of Abel’s blood
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. (Gen. 4:10),
and the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt
During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. (Ex. 2:23).
As the Torah (Law) says in Leviticus 19:13: “You shall not defraud your neighbour, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning.”
This is reiterated in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them, otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you and you would incur guilt”. The “day of slaughter” refers as in Jeremiah 12:3 to the day of judgement. The sixth verse is an allusion to the deutero-canonical book of the Old testament, Ben Sirach, or Ecclesiastics 34:22: “to take away a neighbour’s living is to kill him, to deprive a worker of his wages is to shed his blood.”
This text was precisely the one that changed the life and thought of Fr. Bartolome de las Casas in Cuba in 1514. First an “encomendero” ( a person assigned to a group of Indians presumably to educate them in the Christian faith but who actually enslaved them), he later became one of the most staunch defenders of the Amerindians.
What it means for us in the Caribbean is nothing less than the kind of development we should follow. Kathy McAfee has accurately summarised what the NGOs in our region want: a development which:
- redefines growth,
- is ecologically, economically, psychologically and socially sustainable,
- encourages women to pay a central, active and guiding role,
- rescues and revitalizes Caribbean culture and identity,
- permits a spectrum of political and economic options and experiments and
- empowers the region’s poor majority, building a basis for a more genuine democracy.
This means the poor must be given the opportunity and be empowered to relate to others as equals, to work out solutions using their resources in environmentally sustainable activities. This will include promoting sustainable agriculture among peasant farmers rather than giving them the marginal resources like forests and mangrove swamps,
The views and expertise of organised labour, farmers, youth and women must be incorporated. The real test for any kind of development is its capacity to eradicate poverty and to stop its transmission to future generations.
Questions for discussion
- How are the wages of the workers “crying out today”? (v.4)
- In what sense are the riches of the millionaires “rotten”?
- In what sense are the poor blessed with the gift of the Kingdom? (Lk6:20; Mt 5:3)
- How do we as Christians deal with the fact that the rich seem so often to be rewarded and the poor punished?
Sitahal, H. and Ham A. (eds) “Biblical Reflections on Economics and faith” Caribbean Conference of Churches (1996)
Related Zingcreed Posts
Jesus’s communist brother James (i) his life
Jesus’s communist brother James (ii) his epistle
Hebrew to Hellenist. How the church metamorphosed
Jesus and wealthy people
Prophets attack profits
Titus destroys Jerusalem
[259, INDEXED & LINKED, T&C]