James 2:5-7. “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? Yet you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into court? Don’t they blaspheme the good name that was invoked over you?”
The general context of these verses is the teaching of James on avoiding favoritism in the church. Now it is possible to show favoritism to the rich and it is possible to show favoritism to the poor. Exodus 23:3 says, “Do not show favoritism to a poor person in his lawsuit.” Leviticus 19:5 adds, “Do not act unjustly when deciding a case. Do not be partial to the poor or give preference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly.” But James, in his admonition to us as Christians, is a bit one-sided in the way he treats the issue of favoritism. The examples he gives are all examples of favoritism toward the rich, not favoritism toward the poor. While James does not explicitly deny the possibility of unjustly showing favoritism toward the poor, it appears he intuitively senses that the greater danger, and the one we as Christians must especially be on guard against, is that of showing favoritism toward the rich.
Now, does James really mean that every poor person, without exception, is chosen by God to be rich in faith and an heir of the kingdom He has promised to those who love Him? A careful cross-referencing of Scripture and examination of the real-life world around us will demonstrate that this is not the case. There are, no doubt, materially poor people who are also spiritually poor. And, does James really mean to say that every rich person, without exception, oppresses Christians, drags them into court, and blasphemes the good name of the Lord? Once again, the obvious answer, based on Scripture and real life, is no. There are rich people, such as Abraham, Job, and Joseph of Arimathea, whom the Bible holds up as examples of virtue. By the standards of the rest of the world, I need to remind myself that I am relatively wealthy. And in addition to this, on many occasions I have been the beneficiary of the generosity of godly people whom God has allowed to have more wealth than I will ever have.
But the clear inference, not only from James, but from the Bible as a whole, is that the tendency of human nature is for rich people to oppress the poor, rather than vice versa. The verses that speak to God’s will for the rich to take care of the poor far outnumber those verses that mention the possibility of poor people unfairly taking advantage of the rich (see, for example, here). And the verses that warn of the moral dangers that accompany material wealth far outweigh those that speak to the unique temptations and sins of the poor (see, for example, here).
Why is this the case? Our sinful human nature is, at the core, selfish. We all, without the grace of God in our life, tend to look out, most of all, for Number One. And, generally speaking, the rich have a lot more to offer us than the poor. According to James, this tendency plays out in our legal system—“Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into court?”—and it also plays out in spiritual dynamics—“Don’t they blaspheme the good name that was invoked over you?”
Now, when we say this, it is important at the same time to recognize that there are rich, powerful people who give lip-service to helping the poor but who exploit their supposed concern for the poor for their own gain and personal aggrandizement. It is also important to recognize, as both Proverbs and real life demonstrate, that a system of hand-outs is not generally the most effective nor the most compassionate way to show mercy to the poor and oppressed.
The Bible clearly teaches the virtue of hard work. According to 2 Thessalonians 3:20, those who refuse to work should not even be given a seat at the table. A natural corollary to this is that systems that incentivize work and that reward the diligent and industrious will contribute both to the flourishing of society at large as well as to the poor in particular.
Sometimes the natural tension between these two dynamics—the need to take care of the poor, and the value of a system that incentivizes work—can be complicated to reconcile. Not impossible, but complicated. That being said, it seems to me that we need to be on the lookout for those who tend to emphasize one side of the ledger to the exclusion of the other. This cuts both ways. But if James were here to speak for himself, I get the idea from what he tells us in his epistle that he would add in a final rejoinder: “But be especially on the lookout for those who deemphasize the need to help the poor.”