James writes his letter to Jewish Christians who fled to Northern Palestine/ Syria in order to escape persecution. Living as refugees in an alien land, they faced severe economic distress and also oppression from people living around them, especially from the rich. It would have been easy for these Jewish Christians to become disillusioned about their faith on account of their poverty. So, James addresses them in this passage by telling them to:
Boast in your exaltation (v. 9, 12): James says, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation” (Jas. 1:9). The word ‘lowly’ refers to their ‘low social status’ on account of their poverty. And the word ‘brother’ shows us that he is referring to a Christian who shares his faith in Christ (Jas. 2:1). James’ exhortation to boast in their ‘exaltation’ is puzzling unless you understand what he means by it. ‘Exaltation’ means ‘high position’. The same word is used in two other places, in Lk. 24:49 as ‘high’ and in Eph. 4:8 as ‘high’, to refer to ‘heaven’. James is asking them to boast about the eternal life (Eph. 2:5; Jn. 5:24; 1 Jn. 3:14a) and their ‘heavenly citizenship’ (Eph. 2:6), which they now possess through faith in Jesus Christ. So, they don’t need to be ashamed of their earthly ‘poverty’ rather they must boast about their ‘heavenly status’.
James emphasizes this point in Jas. 1:12. ‘Poverty’ is a test of our faith and a true believer will overcome this test. They know that through faith in Jesus Christ they have received the greatest treasure i.e. the ‘Kingdom of God’ (Matt. 13:44). Therefore, they will continue to trust in Jesus even if they have to endure through a life of poverty. That is why James, like Jesus (Lk. 6:20), calls such people ‘blessed’ because they will receive the ‘crown of life’. It will be an eternal reward for their endurance and they should ‘boast in it’.
Let the rich man boast in his humiliation (v. 10, 11): James asks the rich man to boast ‘in his humiliation’ (Jas. 1:10). Who is this rich man? I don’t think James is talking to a believer here because unlike the poor man he does not call him a ‘brother’. More than that, the rich are generally seen in a very negative light through the epistle of James. In Jas. 2:6-7 the rich are shown to be ‘oppressing Christians and dragging them in to courts’ and ‘blaspheming the name of Jesus Christ’. He seems to be an unbeliever.
Using a biblical metaphor (Is. 40:6-8; Ps. 103:15-16) to explain the rich man’s way of life, James says that, “like a flower of the grass he will pass away…” (Jas. 1:10-11). This metaphor shows the world to be a field and humanity to be the ‘wild grass’ that grows in it. But in a field full of wild grass there are also ‘flowers’, the rich people. But like any human being, the lives of the rich people are also ‘fragile’ and ‘temporary’. They are here today, gone tomorrow. James says, “the rich man fades away in the midst of his pursuits”. In other words, ‘he will fade away as he goes about his business’. The flower at its full bloom exceeds in beauty compared to everything around it. But suddenly the sun comes out, sucks away all the moisture and it dries up. Similarly, the rich man at the peak of his achievements looks invincible but suddenly events/ circumstances bring his life to an almost abrupt end. He is left with nothing, yet James ‘ironically’ asks the rich man to boast in this humiliation. In God’s eyes the way of the unbelieving rich man is laughable.
Application: Compared to eternity, human life is ‘temporary’ and it is very important that we look at poverty/ riches with this perspective in mind. Therefore, let us not give up our faith in the face of any economic distress. Poverty or material wealth will not last forever but what we have in Jesus Christ will last forever.