First, let us observe that several of Sunday's lessons offer images of a dramatic (and beautiful) change in the world. In Isaiah 35:1-10, as a result of God's "coming," the desert blossoms, the weak are strong, the blind can see, and the wilderness becomes a safe lion-free travel zone. A similar note is struck by Psalm 146 and the Magnificat, both of which are offered by the RCL: the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, casts down the mighty from their thrones, and so forth.
Most of these images are what anthropologists classify as "the reversible world," a cross-cultural trope in which all our natural expectations are defied. Think of the Roman Saturnalia, or those medieval celebrations of the Holy Innocents when a boy was chosen to serve as bishop-for-a-day.
But the particular changes envisioned by the Biblical texts are not played for comedy. The weak, the damaged and the poor are made special objects of God's blessing. These texts are more than a mere folkloric device; they are expressions of what liberal theology likes to call "social justice," or even "a preferential option for the poor."
Which brings us to James 5:7-10. The passage at hand was no doubt chosen because it speaks twice of "the Coming of the Lord," parousia tou Kuriou or adventus Domini. It also declares that the Judge is at the door. The passage encourages Christians to wait with patience and good behavior until that Coming, a very useful message -- but also one which can be the cause of considerable mischief. How many beaten wives have been told to stick with their abusers, to be humble and faithful and let Christ do the judging? How many slaves have been given similar messages? And how often have verses like these been recruited to that evil task?
The problem is that the lectionary gives us these verses in isolation. The passage just before them is quite different in tone:
1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! 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.5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. [or "as in a day of feasting"] 6You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. [NIV]It is, in rather bald terms, a prophetic oracle against the rich. In the face of the Lord's Advent, it is they who have not waited patiently and graciously, but who have hoarded their money and defrauded their workers. (And lived luxurious lives, which -- by the way -- Jesus seems to suggest was what Herod did, in contrast to the faithful rigor of John the Baptist, in our Gospel for the week.) James goes so far as to accuse the wealthy of murder -- quite possibly even the murder of Jesus, if we read v. 6 as "the Innocent One."
It is a striking passage, and deserves to be held up for our congregations to hear. The Lord's Advent is not an excuse for tolerating injustice, but a call to lives of justice and charity.
A preacher seeking examples of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and powerless never has far to go. But we are struck by the image of "the wages you have failed to pay your workers," a phrase the NRSV, following the KJV, translates more accurately as "the wages ... which you kept back by fraud [apostereo]." Because although cheating workers is an old custom ("I owe my soul to the company store"), there is one particular figure in our public consciousness who is notorious for this practice.
Years ago, when we consorted with artists rather more than we do now, a friend-of-a-friend was asked to apply a vast quantity of gold leaf to the entrance of a rich New Yorker's office. This is a time-consuming and laborious process, which involves working with tremendous delicacy and uses terribly expensive materials. Our friend himself used gold leaf often, and we watched him many nights, hunched over a small picture frame, using tweezers and feathers and whatever other exotic tools it required, to move shreds of precious metal far thinner than a piece of paper and stick them to a bit of wood. We were both stunned by the cost and sheer labor required to gild an entire doorway.
The artist worked for months, going out of pocket for the materials. And at the end, once the doorway was gilded, the wealthy New Yorker looked at it and said, in effect, "Nah. Not what I wanted. So I'm not going to pay you." The artist was not just upset; he was ruined.
Not having been there, we cannot vouch for the details of that particular story. We do not even know the artist's name. But the names of many other workers who have sued Donald Trump for breach of contract are matters of public record. From drapiers and chandelier-makers to real-estate-consultant -and-reality-TV-personality Barbara Corcoran, Trump seems to have stiffed a vast range of artisans, employees, contractors and partners. Here is a Wall Street Journal article on it. Here's one from Fox News. And USA Today.
It seems to us that the message in our Epistle for the week only makes sense if it is read alongside the preceding verses -- and that those verses are in direct conversation with modern society, and Time's Man of the Year. The Advent of the Lord means, specifically, that we cannot tolerate shady business dealings, especially those by which the wealthy defraud their workers. If we are serious about Advent, we will call out this sort of behavior wherever we see it -- and if not, we should remember that the Judge is at the door.