Ecce merces operariorum, qui messuerunt regiones vestras, quae fraudata est a vobis, clamat : et clamor eorum in aures Domini sabbaoth introivit. Epulati estis super terram, et in luxuriis enutristis corda vestra in die occisionis.
Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; 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 pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
James is certainly condemning the wealthy of Rome, here. They held an economic and cultural hegemony on the entire world at that point. Economic because all wealth flowed to Rome for consumption, but cultural as well, because anyone who pretended to be wealthy pretended to be Roman. And they exported their culture by force: tying their ideas about morality, freedom, politics, and economy to any process of local advancement: you want to be king in your country, make it Roman. So James is not only speaking of Romans, but also of Jews (and others) who pretended to wealth, aping the standards of Rome.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah will be familiar to you, if only because you have been exposed to the horror story version or the sexualized version in some movie or TV show. You may also know the Bible Version in Genesis 18 and 19. Americans (religious or not) are prone to taking brief passages of the Scripture to make their point and ignoring what comes first and follows after. It is, however, the context that makes the story – not the meaning we add to it. Sex is not the meaning.
The Icon above is generally styled “The Holy Trinity” and it was painted by St Andrei Rublev (1360-1430). Done in 1425, the theme is more properly called “The Hospitality of Abraham” because it shows the three Angels visiting Abraham and Sarah, as recording in Genesis 18:1-8ff:
And the Lord appeared to him in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting at the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day. And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near to him: and as soon as he saw them, he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground. And he said: Lord, if I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away from thy servant. But I will fetch a little water, and wash ye your feet, and rest ye under the tree. And I will set a morsel of bread, and strengthen ye your heart, afterwards you shall pass on: for therefore are you come aside to your servant. And they said: Do as thou hast spoken. Abraham made haste into the tent to Sara, and said to her: Make haste, temper together three measures of flour, and make cakes upon the hearth. And he himself ran to the herd, and took from thence a calf, very tender and very good, and gave it to a young man, who made haste and boiled it. He took also butter and milk, and the calf which he had boiled, and set before them: but he stood by them under the tree.
This story of Hospitality is the prologue to the story Sodom. After a wonderful conversation where Sarah laughs at God, the three men get ready to go.
And when the men rose up from thence, they turned their eyes towards Sodom: and Abraham walked with them, bringing them on the way. And the Lord said: Can I hide from Abraham what I am about to do: Seeing he shall become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed? For I know that he will command his children, and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, and do judgment and justice: that for Abraham’s sake, the Lord may bring to effect all the things he hath spoken unto him. And the Lord said: The cry of Sodom and Gomorrha is multiplied, and their sin is become exceedingly grievous. I will go down and see whether they have done according to the cry that is come to me; or whether it be not so, that I may know.
Traditional, very conservative Jewish Biblical commentary is filled with many entirely non-sexual reasons for that cry that ascended to God: greed, abuse of slaves, injustice, pride; lack of care for the poor that was so extreme you could be punished for feeding the homeless – like in Fort Lauderdale and some twenty other locations in the USA. St James sees in Rome this exact pattern.
The Midrash tells two tales of righteous women who dared extend a helping hand to beggars and were put to death:
Two maidens of Sodom met at the well, where they had both gone to drink and fill up their water jugs. One girl asked her friend, “Why is your face so pale?” Her friend answered, “We have nothing to eat at home, and are dying of starvation.” Her compassionate friend filled her own jug with flour, and exchanged it for her friend’s jug of water. When the Sodomites found out about her act, they burnt her to death.
A second tale:
It was announced in Sodom, “Whoever will give bread to a poor person will be burnt at the stake.”
Plotit, the daughter of Lot, who was married to a prominent Sodomite, once saw a poor man who was so hungry that he was unable to stand. She felt sorry for him. From then on, she made sure to pass him every day on her way to the well, and she would feed him some food that she had stashed in her water jug.
People wondered how the man managed to live. Upon investigation, they discovered her act and prepared to burn her. Before she died, she turned to G‑d and cried, “Master of the world, carry out justice on my behalf!” Her cries pierced the heavens, and at that moment G‑d said, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.”
Moderns with a more liberal political agenda like to make much of such stories and say Sodom was destroyed for violations of the Desert Code of Hospitality. This is truth! The Synagogue lays the Hospitality of Abraham for the three angels specifically in sharp contrast to the lack of hospitality in Sodom. These texts are read every year together on the same Sabbath. We can learn much meditating on how Abraham (and, later, Lot) treats the Three Strangers, who happen to be the Holy Trinity in Christian typology and iconography, as compared to how all others in Sodom treat the same Three Strangers.
This understanding is good and true as far as it goes but, of course, words matter: when we moderns hear “hospitality” we do not hear “matter of life and death in the desert” but rather “Grandma was always a gracious hostess” or something about Waffle House, and a number of Yelp stars. No matter how many times it might be explained, the divine obligation of care for the stranger (regardless of culture or divinity) is totally lost as a social responsibility in today’s culture. In rejecting Syrian refugees, or Latin American children, in abandoning the poor, the homeless, the jobless youth, America becomes another Sodom.
Such hospitality, in the better places, is relegated as an obligation to the state and forgotten by individuals and, God help us, even by Churches. In the worst places, like Sodom and Fort Lauderdale, it is outlawed all together. Even Churches in Fort Sodomdale fail to protest. The Churches in San Francisco which, for other – entirely wrong – reasons, is often compared to Sodom, are again failing the poor, as we have not only a Temp Mayor, but an entire crop of politicians who are literally sweeping the poor off our streets in the name of the Rich. In fact, some churches are playing along. Some are not, really. St Bonaventure’s has converted parts of their physical plant to care for the poor of the neighborhood, installing even showers in the church. Meanwhile, St Mary’s Cathedral has installed showers outside… But if all the faith leaders of SF were to ban together to protest the treatment of the poor, would the Catholic Mayor of SF listen? Or would he be swayed by the lamentations of the Rich, who are scared of the poor, who are discomfited by the poor, who need a safe space from the poor.
Our treatment of the poor and the stranger is exactly – as in the case of Abraham – how we treat God.
America’s Sodomy goes even further. Our electronic devices, our clothing, even our food is the product of a virtual slavery in which we hold the entire world. Sometimes the slavery is not very virtual at all. There is nary a tomato sold out of season in the USA that is not the product of indentured servitude. Our clothes and all our cheap stuff we justify by saying “we are giving them jobs” when, in fact, they managed to get by for millennia without our jobs, but now need jobs because we have forced our economic system on them in the name of our security.
So deep is our problem that I have to type this – and you have to read it – on the very products of our slavery. And we both have to feel good about it: because how else would we even communicate now? Most (all?) Catholic Apostolates make unquestioning use of electronics that are built, in the same way as our Christmas ornaments, by impoverished wage slaves in third world dictatorships held in place by our economic choices. How can that be that the Gospel should ride on the backs of slaves? San Francisco’s entire economy is built on this part of our hegemony.
James is certainly condemning the wealthy of Rome, here. But James is condemning America as well. We hold an economic and cultural hegemony on the entire world at this point. Economic because all wealth flows to America for consumption, but cultural as well, because anyone who pretends to be wealthy pretends to be American. And we export our culture by force: tying our ideas about morality, freedom, politics, and economy to any gov’t charity. So James is not only speaking of Romans, but also of Americans who pretend to wealth – even Christians – and are aping the standards of Rome.