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Speaking for the Oppressed

Sermon passage: (James 5:1-6) Spoken on: July 15, 2012
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James

Tags: James, 雅各书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on James 5:1-6

In the previous sermon, we talked about the Merchant class of the Roman society.[1] In today’s passage, James continues his criticisms of the rich. But this time, he does it in a harsher and much more judgmental tone. The reason for this dramatic change is because he was addressing an entirely different group of people from the Merchant class. In today’s passage, he was pronouncing judgment over the Landlord class.

At this point, I think it would be helpful for us to have a simple understanding of the Roman class system. The Roman society was divided into 4 classes. At the very bottom were the slaves who were either enslaved because of war or sold into slavery out of poverty. The next class was the freedman. Though they were free, in terms of economic status, they were not very different from the slaves and they mostly consisted of peasants working the fields. Those who were skilled could be craftsmen and artisans, but they were not rich as well and highly dependent on patrons for employment. The last two levels were the landowners, called the patricians and the plebeians. The only difference between the two was that the patricians were the original citizens of Rome before it became an empire, while the plebeians were not. Among all the Roman emperors, 30% of them came from the plebeian class, so you see there wasn’t really a class hierarchy between the two. By and large, social mobility in the Roman society was very low. The landowners held the majority of the wealth and power and the rest of the people depended on them for their livelihood. There were 2 exceptions to this rule. The first was, if you had some money, you could become a merchant. There were very few who had chosen this path because not many could afford the gamble. It was a huge investment and risky business because transportation in the past, moving from city to city, was very expensive and treacherous. If you failed and lost your investments, you could end up as a slave, but if you succeeded, you could move up the ladder to become a landowner one day. You can now see why successful merchants took great pride in their abilities. It was in their nature to control their own fates. The other exception was to go by the military route. Good soldiers moved up the ranks and gained from the plunder to accumulate wealth and status. The only downside was that war was common, and there were many who never returned from the battlefields. But the successful one would gain better equipment over time, from slowly acquiring different parts of the armour to using better weapons. The ultimate prize was to acquire a war horse and become a knight. I hope this simple introduction allows you to reinterpret the biblical military references like the armor of God in a new light. Putting on Jesus allows you to move up the ranks. (half joking)

Under such conditions, where all wealth and power was concentrated on the very few, oppression of the poor was very common. Most of them were laborers, whether freedman or slaves, working on the fields of these landowners, living at their mercy. Although the freedmen were slightly better than the slaves, in that they were paid wages, the amount was barely enough to survive. This is why the Jewish laws dictated that they had to be paid at the end of the day.
Leviticus 19: 13 “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
Deuteronomy 24: 14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Yet, despite the already intolerable situation, the rich often made matters worse by oppressing the poor even further. You might wonder why this privileged and self-sufficient class would want to exploit those who had nothing. The reality is that one can always be richer, and in a Roman society where your votes was directly correlated to the size of your property, more wealth and land meant greater influence and higher social status. So, they often delayed the wages of the workers or short-changed them. Frankly, there was very little the poor could do because the magistrates were part of the upper class and easily bribed. Even many of the priests and religious leaders were landowners themselves. At such times, it was often the prophets who would speak against social injustice. This was why condemnation of the nobilities and corrupt officials was such a common theme in the OT prophets.

In the passage today, James repeats much of the rhetoric of the Prophets in his condemnation. He speaks of a day of judgment where all the accumulated wealth and false securities of these landlords will be destroyed. This judgment is a fair one because the charges were very clear:
4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
And the Day of Judgment would be the day of mourning for these people. I think there is no need to elaborate on these verses since we are already familiar with them from the Ezekiel sermon series.[2]

What I would like to focus on are the practical aspects of our response to the passage. I believe James would have the same thing in mind when he speaks of the deeds that should come from our faith. In our application of such bible passages, there are two extremes that we should avoid. The first extreme is to think that since it is God’s word, it must be directly relevant to us. No, not true. We are not the direct audience of James, and circumstances have certainly transformed over the centuries. The other extreme is to conclude that this passage is solely about landlords and peasants and it is a world so far removed from us that it is irrelevant to us. This is untrue as well. Underlying the world of landlords and peasants is an issue of social injustice between the unrighteous rich and the oppressed poor. As Christians, we are called to be the people of God. We have a prophetic voice and responsibility to speak out against social injustice and oppression. And so let us spend some time to reflect on how this message can be a timely reminder in today’s context.

The first thing we need to do is to return to the original class system of landlords and peasants. What has changed over time? Unfortunately, while I believe that the evil landlords were each judged by God in their own time, the system itself didn’t change much for more than a thousand years. We still had landlords and peasants when the Roman Empire became a Christian empire. But the difference sadly, was that the Church itself became the one of the biggest landlords. Ironically, the only time when the peasants had more power was during the horrible times like the Black Death, where shortages of workers led to high demand and wages for the peasants.[3] Christianity and the Church contributed little for the peasants. Instead, it was the Enlightenment principles of equality, citizenship and inalienable rights that overthrew the power of nobilities and the ideology of class systems once and for all. However, the Enlightenment also indirectly ushered in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Instead of landlords and peasants, we had factory owners and workers. On one hand, it increased social mobility for those with an entrepreneurial spirit. On the other hand, oppression of the poor took a different form. Issues of child labour and malnutrition of the masses were common in the first hundred years of industrialisation. Thankfully, proper legislature eventually caught up with such abuses. Still, there is always this uneasy tension between the government, corporations and workers. Who should own the means of production? Decades ago, the world was divided into the Socialist states and the Market economies. These days, every country has their individual blend of how to juggle this balance of power. I often read the internet forums to understand the debate between the libertarians and the Democrats. I admit that it is not an easy task. We all want an environment favourable to business. But we are well aware that businesses are largely profit-driven, and it would be naïve to expect them to self-regulate. Better to 先小人,后君子。This is the conclusion I like best:
The issue is not more or less regulation. The issue is good or bad regulation. Our role as Christians and the prophets of the poor is to champion and support good regulations. This is the application for today’s sermon.

What would be good regulations we can support? You may have your personal grievances, maybe you are upset about maids being forced to clean the outside of windows and falling to their deaths, but one of mine is the working conditions of foreign workers. I applaud the efforts of this man, Mr. Jolovan Wham. “As the executive director and one of the founding members of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), Wham has for the past seven years reached out to migrant workers here to help fight for their rights. Abuse, exploitation, underpayment — Wham says he’s pretty much seen them all. He cites how some Bangladeshi cleaners live, sleep and cook in bin centres, earning about $15 for between 12 and 16 hours of work each day, and how many workers from China are forced to sign outrageous contracts that withhold pay or subject them to punishment, for example, should they file complaints with the authorities. He says he has lost count of the number of construction workers’ dormitories he has visited, most of which are unlikely to ever sniff acceptable standards of sanitation or hygiene. He shares that one of the worst container blocks he visited required workers living there to squeeze into three beds stacked on top of one another — with 10 of these stacks crammed into a room that fits all 30 beds just nicely, leaving hope of having any available walking space zero to none — sleeping on wooden boards to reduce the number of bedbugs they would have to deal with, should they have mattresses.”[iv]

This is why I am happy to read this piece of news from last year. “ST9 Pte Ltd was fined $50,000 - the highest fine to date, while Sunhuan Construction Pte Ltd was issued with two $10,000 fines. 377 foreign workers from 12 companies were found residing in poor living conditions during a joint inspection of Sunhuan Construction Pte Ltd's workers' dormitory at Tagore Industrial Avenue in October 2010. The accomodations had poor ventilation and housekeeping, which compromised their well-being. ST9 Pte Ltd was fined after MOM conducted an inspection at three of its factory-converted dormitories at Woodlands Industrial Park. More than 1,100 foreign workers were found at units which were overcrowded by more than twice the occupant loads. More than 600 workers were found staying on levels that were not approved to be used for housing.”[v]

However, I believe that as a society, we can do more than just carry out good law enforcements. We need to transform our mind-set, just like how the Enlightenment principles abolished the class system. It is when our mind-set change, that the systems that are wrong may change. I leave you with these words I read in a commentary in the Straits Times in February this year. It is a suggestion for a “wage revolution” for the poor in Singapore. “For far too long, Singaporeans have been comfortable being served by an underclass of workers - mainly foreign migrants - clutching the moral fig leaf that low wages for them are justified since they spend the money in their home countries, where costs of living are lower. But the reality is that there are tens of thousands of Singaporeans who do the same jobs as foreigners do - for the same or slightly higher pay - and have to combat soaring prices here with diminishing wages. Will middle-class Singapore countenance wage increases that will raise their cost of a restaurant meal, a haircut or a car wash?

Perhaps the question should be put the other way round. Perhaps Singaporeans should consider if they can countenance being a society where the well-off live well, on the low cost of service provided by workers who cannot make ends meet. Is Singapore comfortable being an increasingly ossified society with an underclass that might one day be permanent, as social mobility slows? Should we aspire to be like egalitarian Denmark or divided Dubai? Settling these questions requires a certain level of commitment from a society.”[6]

Ask yourself today. Are you ready for this mind-set change?

[1] See
[2] See for example:
[3] Further reading:

James 5:1–6 (Listen)

5:1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 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. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.