James 5:2-3 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.
The problem is not with wealth itself. Wealth is a gift from God. The problem James is addressing is that sinful men and women often allow wealth and riches to become the be all and end all of life. What such people forget is that riches will not last. Material possessions rot and decay. The finest clothes are eventually consumed by moths. Even precious metals eventually rust and tarnish. James’ warning here echoes the words of Jesus elsewhere. As Jesus himself warns us in Matthew 6:19-21,“do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Those who trust in their wealth–rather than grace and mercy of God–will have their arrogance and unbelief exposed for all to see on the day of judgment. As Jesus points out, the rich who were exploiting the poor, have allowed their trust and affections to be tied to their possessions, all the while their hearts have wandered far from the purposes and will of God. Therefore, James reminds the wealthy who were persecuting Christians, that even as their clothes are eaten by moths, and even as their precious metals rust away, that very same corrosion which exposes their folly will be used as evidence against them–a warning which certainly implies the idea of a final judgment, when all that they have accumulated is only so much evidence of their sinful arrogance.
In a very loud echo from Ezekiel 7:19, James warns the wealthy that they will be consumed by fire. “They cast their silver into the streets, and their gold is like an unclean thing. Their silver and gold are not able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord. They cannot satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it. For it was the stumbling block of their iniquity.” This is the fate of those whose wealth–which is a great blessing from the Lord–blinds them to that which truly lasts, and which is of infinite value–the favor of God in Christ. Instead of seeing wealth as a blessing, and something which can be used to help others in need, James exposes the sin which provokes God’s judgment. “You have laid up treasure in the last days.”
It is important that we not miss the great irony in all of this. The wealthy, those who are being condemned by James, are those people who horde their possessions precisely because they trust in those possessions instead of trusting in the purposes of God. But the wealth they horde will eventually rot away and corrode. Instead of storing up wealth, they are actually storing up God’s wrath, because a day of final judgment is coming. But this is the very thing the wealthy cannot see, because they trust in their wealth to save them from whatever may come to pass. As James will indicate later on in the passage, he clearly believes that he is living in the last days–that the Lord might return at any moment–and in this lies the folly of hoarding personal wealth. Their wealth will be of no value to them whatsoever on the day of judgment, and their wealth (which God has given them) will actually testify against them. James has already warned us that life is short, and that our failure to submit our plans to the will of God is but testimony of our arrogance. So here too James reminds us of the folly of that all too common sentiment expressed in the popular bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”