One thing I advise people who attend my Bible studies not to do is to glance over difficulties because, more often than not, a little digging will reveal some interesting insights you otherwise would have missed. Take, for example, James 5:2-3:
“Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you …”
Hold on a second! Did he say “your gold and silver have corroded”? Here’s the problem: Gold doesn’t rust. In fact, gold doesn’t naturally react to air or water. Why, then, would James speak of gold and silver rusting away? Clearly, there is more to this passage than meets the eye.
One possible solution might be found in the Greek word translated “corrupted” (Greek, ios). It’s usually translated “poison” or “corruption.” In regard to metal, it’s usually translated “rust” or perhaps “tarnish.” Anyone who owns silverware knows that silver tarnishes, so there’s no problem here. But gold? Gold is the most non-reactive of all metals. It may darken a bit over time, but it doesn’t tarnish, per se. Yet James causally speaks about “rust” and “gold” as if his readers would have immediately understood. What are we missing?
The answer, interestingly enough, is found not in the Hebrew Old Testament, but in an ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint and in a book that is not included in Rabbinical or Protestant Bibles. It’s found in the Book of Sirach, 29:8-12, which reads:
“To a poor man, however, be generous; keep him not waiting for your alms; Because of the precept, help the needy, and in their want, do not send them away empty-handed. Spend your money for your brother and friend, and hide it not under a stone to perish; Dispose of your treasure as the Most High commands, for that will profit you more than the gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasure house, and it will save you from every evil.”
Sirach’s point is that the true value of money is to serve others. Those who give alms to the poor, or a brother, or a friend, receive something more valuable than its value in bullion. It is deposited into “your treasure house, and it will save you from every evil.” This personal treasure house contains not gold or silver, but what is pleasing to God so that “… it will save you from every evil.” If you stockpile gold for your own benefit in your earthly treasure house (in this case under a stone), it will waste away.
Here we have the same odd idea we found in James, gold and silver rusting away. But Sirach is not giving us a lesson on metallurgy. He’s teaching us about morals and the spiritual value of almsgiving. It is like storing up a heavenly treasure whereas selfish hording makes the gold and silver saved spiritually worthless.
Jesus echoes Sirach’s teaching in Matthew 6:19-21, in which He instructs, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
Looking back at James 5:1-4, we see both Sirach and Matthew at work behind James’ rusty gold:
“Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days.”
Just as Sirach and Jesus teach that almsgiving and good works add to a heavenly treasure of reward before God, James teaches that the opposite is also true. The selfish use of money will not only become corrupt, but it will be added to a treasury of wrath for the Final Judgment so as to be a witness against its owner. The lesson for us is: Don’t leave earth with rusty gold.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.