Jesus's little brother, James, lays it on pretty thick in this week's second reading. As the de facto leader of the early Christian community, James makes some of the sharpest critiques of wealth and possesses the most sardonic of tongues.
After critiquing the accumulated wealth of the rich -- the corroded gold and silver that will "devour [their] flesh like fire" -- he delivers one of the most stunning and biting pieces of sarcasm that you're likely to encounter in the gospels: "You have stored up treasure for the last days." The verse divisions in Scripture blunt the impact of this line, placing it (I believe incorrectly) with the previous sentences. But I hear an accusation -- a charge against the rich. It should be included in the next verse, which would make the section read:
You have stored up treasure for the last days: Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
In other words, James is telling his listeners that in anticipation of the Last Days -- that imminent apocalyptic event in which God will reverse the fortunes of the rich and the poor -- the poor have been preparing (as per Jesus's command) with repentance and prayer, while the rich have been "preparing" with continued injustice, oppression and robbery! James is not only complaining about the rich, but condemning them in advance. These saps--the idle, rapacious wealthy--have no idea what is just around the corner for them. But they are about to!
Compared to Jesus, who did plenty of own, albeit lower-key, blasting of the rich (Luke 6:24), James comes across like a wild-eyed and merciless zealot. Not the kind of guy you'd want to bump into in a dark portico of the Temple. He sounds like the kind of person who suffered personal poverty and is salivating at the chance to avenge himself for all the misery he endured. Says a lot about the perilous living conditions of a certain household in Nazareth. It's better for us that it was his older brother who saw himself as the Messiah. That way, we get apocalyptic warnings, but leavened with messages about mercy, non-violence, forgiveness and service. James's take-no-prisoners approach and sense of victimization would have been harder to spin into a religion of love.
Yet for all that, James is worth listening to, especially in light of Pope Francis's visit to the US this week. Francis's message was essentially that of James -- just cranked down from 11 to 4. By critiquing unfettered capitalism, threats of deportation toward undocumented immigrants and indifference to climate change (with their concommitant and disproportionate impact on the poor) Francis echoed today's reading. It's not a bad thing that well-off American Christians have to squirm in their seats from time to time. The Church they profess to serve was rooted in poverty -- the poverty chosen for its spiritual benefits as well as the inevitable poverty imposed by oppressive social systems. Over the centuries, the finest exemplars of the Church's core values -- Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero -- embraced poverty and loved the poor. Theirs was the Christian impulse that built hospitals, orphanages and schools -- not TV stations and garish, multi-million-dollar "parsonages." For us to recall the impulse to reach out to the downtrodden would be an antidote to the thinking of those who despise the undocumented, turn their backs on refugees and harass those on government aid. "Christians" like that could stand a little dose of unfiltered James.
I rejoice that voices like James's are preserved in our biblical canon. They urge us to constantly reexamine our own assumptions about wealth and our own levels of giving and service. And I rejoice that the Church has the courage to include James in its three-year cycle of readings. Too many Christian churches feel free to omit critiques of the rich, giving the discredited impression that Jesus wants us to be wealthy and to crap on the poor. That strain of modern "Americanism" is neither peculiar to our nation nor to our time. But it deserves to be challenged at every opportunity.