Rich as Kings, Poor in Soul?

“And a final word to you arrogant rich: Take some lessons in lament. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within…

All the workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse.” – James 5:1-5 (MSG)

Sometimes it seems better to have left our holy texts in Latin and Greek, remote and beautiful and utterly removed from our reality. It’s hard to hear James’ uncompromising words in 21st-century vernacular, because most of us can’t help but feel convicted by them.

After all, the world has until this moment never known the kind of wealth that many of us enjoy. If you have running water, electricity, more than two changes of clothes, and eat meat: you are living, quite literally, like most of the kings Earth has ever known.

The conundrum: as rich as we’ve become, our wealth has not eradicated poverty. Income inequality is higher now than it was in the days when the robber barons drank champagne in their penthouse apartments while street urchins dumpster dove on 5th Avenue below.

I’m looking for a loophole, so we can find our way out of this corner: notice that James condemns the “arrogant” rich. Does that mean the contrite, humble or always-afflicted-with-low-level-liberal-guilt wealthy are all set? Or are all gains ill gotten, in the eyes of the Lord?

Perhaps James is only using hyperbole to shock us awake. But the consistent lesson of wealth in the Bible seems to be: it’s not just that wealth is not good for the poor, it’s not good for the rich either. There is both a human and a personal, spiritual cost to being prosperous while poverty still exists. As Rev. Dr. James Forbes said, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”


God, awake me to the cost of my comforts, and show me how to do my part to help all your children prosper. Amen.

About the Author
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of the First Church of Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church and Standing Naked Before God.