Thought to be among the earliest, extant Christian writings, the brief letter addresses the challenges facing Jewish believers located primarily in the area around Jerusalem. Clearly, these early devotees of Jesus experienced suffering, systemic economic oppression and some forms of persecution--possibly because of their opinions about the identity of Jesus and certainly due to the social and status implications of those strongly held opinions and life perspectives.
James 1:9-11 (NRSV)
Poverty and Riches9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
The social and economic place and condition of the early Christian community to whom James writes was less than ideal to day the least. Let me recommend that you read through James' entire correspondence at one sitting. The context clearly indicates that most of those James addresses knew poverty and economic fragility first hand. And those caught in the machinations of economic injustice did what poor people always seem to do: they honored the rich, their oppressors and in doing so they forfeited an accurate and appropriate sense of their own ultimate worthiness.
James counsels a completely different take on the self-understanding of the "poor." James indicates that the person of faith who is of "lowly" financial means and status should boast in anticipation of being lifted up from poverty. God works for the poor and oppressed, that's the implication here. Against all counter claims and appearances, God stands on the side of the impoverished and battles to see folk rise up from the social trash heap created and informed by the bias, false status and pride of a wealthy, powerful oppressive class.
The rich, the oppressors who control most of the benefit of the economy of the day should boast in anticipation of being "brought low." Here the implication is clear: the fate of the wealthy depends upon their facing the fact that the wealth they control is fleeting. A person's wealth cannot save her from the fate of all humankind! Like a wilting flower in the middle of a sunbaked field, those who "control" large amounts of wealth should learn that in the end they control nothing. The rich will see life end, just as will "the poor."
In the end however, the way to life will be discovered in honest humility, not in overreaching opulence that builds wealth by extracting life from those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Life will not be found in any enterprise that imposes a cruel fate on the oppressed poor of the land.
James sounds a lot like his brother, Jesus.
The "turning of the tables," for the sake of the triumph of the justice shaping God's heart, is an important theme in the story of the life of Jesus, especially as told by Luke (see Luke 1:46-55; 4:16-21; 6:20-26; 16:1-31; et. al.). The further we read in James, the more parallels we'll discover to the thinking and teaching of his famous brother.
So, right off the bat, James establishes that God comes down on the side of and in the meagre camp of the so-called "poor." For in God's economy those who appear down and out soon will be up and coming, while the unrepentant rich cruise ahead without thought of the fall or "equity adjustment" on its way.
James: a radical word, but an important and timely word for today.