Who Are the Unfortunate?

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

James 1:9-11 (ESV)

The account of Mozambique in the twentieth century is a story of immense tragedy. In the 1930s, after decades of struggle, Portugal finally regained control over their southeast African colony. In retaliation for their rebelliousness, Portuguese authorities denied the native Bantu-speaking people opportunity by placing them in harsh economic and political bondage. By 1962, several resistance movements coalesced to form the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) to combat their oppressors’ efforts to keep their people impoverished and powerless. Although FRELIMO succeeded in ousting the Portuguese in 1975, their attempts at financial reform failed, and they soon became a totalitarian regime far worse than the colonial power that once dominated them. By the 1980s, civil war ensued, the economy completely collapsed, and Africa witnessed another gruesome humanitarian disaster—all because of greed and lust for power.

History tells time and again of wars that were ignited by tensions between the rich and the poor. First-century Palestine was no different, witnessing actual class warfare. Choosing alliance with the Roman Empire over identity with their own countrymen, Jewish aristocrats frequently held on to their positions and property by promising to keep the common people in check. These wealthy landowners collaborated with Roman officials and soldiers despite the fact that the latter often confiscated possessions, raped women, and terrorized the populace. Frustrated with the social order, numerous revolutionary outfits emerged. Groups like the Sicarii targeted certain Roman leaders, but more often they would find these well-to-do Jewish “traitors” and stab them—sometimes in public places for maximum exposure of their cause. Such conflict thus rent the Jewish people in two during the New Testament era.

The Apostle James knew that following Jesus offered a way out of the violence. Battles between rich and poor should not characterize the people of God. Christians must do better, because they know the Lord and His Word. Indeed, all men are like grass. Like Palestinian vegetation withered by scorching sirocco winds, so too the affluence and vitality of every human being meets its match when he or she finally arrives at death’s door (Ps. 103:15-16; Isa. 40:6-7).

Since he has so little in this world, the poor man stands in a much better position to understand his need. Because he is weak, he is more inclined to trust God and give thanks, even for simple gifts. His low station puts him in a special position, spiritually speaking—an exalted place (v. 9)—for he is much closer to discovering the truth that salvation has to come by grace. And this is precisely what God is looking for—the heart that is willing to let Him accomplish the work of redemption.

The rich man has a much more difficult task if he wants to find his way into the kingdom of God. Despite all appearances to the contrary, including his wealth and earthly power, he must embrace the unsettling truth: one day, he will be food for worms (vv. 10-11). It is a truth that calls for profound humility.

The imperative of James contains an important message for global evangelism today. If the peoples of America and Europe want to see revival, then they will have to see their wealth for what it is—ephemeral. Money may not necessarily be an indication of God’s favor. Those elsewhere, however, have sensed long ago their profound spiritual and material needs. The Lord knows these poor, and He has been at work. The gospel is flourishing and taking root in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Such divine blessing may just force Christians everywhere to redefine what they mean by the terms “fortunate” and “unfortunate.”