One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes from 1995's "Tommy Boy," starring the late Chris Farley. Farley plays a clumsy, dimwitted, but lovable college student named Thomas R. Callahan III, a.k.a. "Tommy Boy," who returns home to work at his father's auto parts plant. Upon his arrival, Tommy's father reveals to him that he is newly engaged and that Tommy will soon have a stepbrother named Paul. The first time Paul meets Tommy, he tries to coldly introduce himself to Tommy with a handshake, but Tommy will have none of it. Tommy exclaims, "Brothers don't shake hands, brothers gotta hug!" and embraces Paul with a suffocating bear hug.
The ties of brotherhood were created to be strong. Brothers express their affection for each other with heartfelt hugs and sincere sacrifices, not hollow handshakes and polite pleasantries.
The apostle James understands the ties of brotherhood well. In fact, he refers to his readers as "brothers" no fewer than fifteen times over the course of his little letter. Indeed, his whole epistle is addressed to his Jewish brothers in Christ who are "scattered among the nations" (James 1:1), that is, except for one section. And that section comes at the beginning of our reading for today from James 5.
Whereas James customarily opens each section of his letter by speaking to his brothers, he does not do so here. Instead, he opens chapter 5:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your 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. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (verses 1-6)
As I read these words, I can almost see James wagging his finger at these wealthy aristocrats: "Now listen here, you affluent snobs! You may be rich, but you're not my brothers! No, you're wayward, hateful sinners! And you're really going to get it from God in the end! He's going to slaughter you in judgment!"
Now why would James level such harsh condemnation against the wealthy of his day? Is James some kind of bumbling, backwater indigent who has something against rich people because he's poor? Hardly. James has nothing against wealth itself, but the way in which these people use their wealth. They hoard it. They fail to pay their workers. They live for their own self-indulgence. They even murder the innocent. James declares that such wickedness will not go unpunished by God.
It's not as if those in James' band of brothers are without sin. James warns his readers against temptation to sin (1:13-15), favoritism (2:1-4), action-less faith (2:14-17), and malicious talk (3:9-12). James' brothers surely fall short of God's standards, but they are still his brothers - his brothers in Christ. And that makes all the difference. For no matter what differences, grievances, and concerns he may have with them, they still share the foundation of Christ on which they can stand together.
Finally, James' hope is that even the rich people whom he roundly condemns might join him in Christian brotherhood. As James writes at the end of his book, "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (verses 19-20). By condemning the sins of these rich oppressors, James hopes to lead these who have wandered from the truth to repentance so that their sins might be covered and they might become his brothers in Christ.
So today, which brother or sister in Christ can you thank God for? Is there anyone who has strayed from the brotherhood of faith whom you can seek to gently restore? For having restoring a brother in Christ means seeing another sinner forgiven. And a forgiven sinner is a joy that deserves a hug. So hug a brother or sister in Christ today. It's only appropriate.