There are two themes clearly seen in the beginning of this chapter: (1) Earthly riches are ultimately worthless and (2) The person who trusts in earthly riches is corrupt and will suffer at the Judgment.
It should be noted that the rich people addressed in this passage are not Christians. James doesn't call them "brethren" as he does elsewhere throughout this book. I believe James is trying to deter Christians from envying the rich and from desiring to be like them in their wicked, materialistic ways. He wants his readers to see the rich in their proper perspective; that is, in the manner God sees them.
James is not saying that it is sinful to be rich and virtuous to be poor. There are Bible examples of both rich and poor living lives pleasing to God. Likewise with the wicked--some are rich and some are poor. Riches and poverty are outward circumstances that aren't directly related to the state of a person's soul. However, more often than not, it is true that it is much more difficult to make it to heaven if you're rich than if you're poor (Matt. 19:23). Why? Because the wealthier a person is, the more likely he is to trust in his possessions. It is hard for such a one to be spiritually-minded because his focus is on the temporal things of the world, not on serving God by doing His will. People of this sort typically live to please themselves.
Let us all take Paul's instructions to heart regarding money in I Timothy 6:6ff. Let us live for God to the fullest, regardless of our financial standing. If a person is rich and fails to use his wealth for good works, then he is a lover of money and miseries are headed his way! James doesn't say that the miseries will catch up to him in this life, although they could. But, without a doubt, on the Day of Judgment the wicked rich will weep and howl in agony. If only they could see the ultimate consequences of how they are living right now; if only they could understand what hell will be like, then they would shriek and repent!
Dear listeners, please realize that riches and possessions are rotting and worthless in the overall scheme of things! One cannot depend upon money, even if he had a billion dollars. Life on Earth is unpredictable and passes quickly. But, our existence is much more than just our physical bodies! We live for a moment on this planet, but we will exist forever in either heaven or hell.
James noted that if gold and silver are not cared for properly, they, like most metals, will corrode. Spiritually speaking, the same thing happens to the wicked rich. Greed and selfishness slowly eat them up and destroy their souls! The wealth that many labor to accumulate isn't going to do them any good. In fact, on the Day of Judgment, it will be a testimony against them! When the rich stand before God, He will consider the ways He blessed them and the way they used those blessings--selfishly or as His servants? It is reasonable to understand the reference to fire in verse 3 as being an allusion to hellfire. Those who are materialistically minded will ultimately be eaten up there.
Friends, are you materialistically minded? That is a serious question. Can you answer it accurately? Try this exercise sometime soon. Sit down and analyze your finances. Once you see where your money goes each month, you'll be better able to answer the question. If all Christians spent their money as you do, would there be more good works for the Lord being accomplished or fewer? Would you consider someone else who spends their money like you do to be materialistic? These are questions you should ask yourself. My purpose is not to specify where your every dollar should go, but if you are a follower of the Lord, then you need to know what kind of steward you are. God required the Israelites to give at least ten percent of their incomes. In my opinion, that's a good starting place for us today. We're more blessed than those who lived under the Old Testament, so shouldn't we at least give back to the Lord like they did? If you can't set aside at least $10 out of every $100 that you earn (before taxes), then I would suggest that you are probably materialistically minded. Is all your money being selfishly spent on yourself? How much of it is being used to God's glory?