There are many things that can be said about Jesus’ younger, half-brother James, but beating around the bush, being bashful, or catering to his congregation are not on the list. Throughout James’ letter to those early followers of Jesus he has put a finger on those places in their hearts, as well as our hearts, that need examined, confessed, and transformed by the renewing power of the Gospel. James is not in the least bit impressed with Christians who talk the talk, but he is greatly concerned that the followers of Jesus walk the walk. In James 1:20 he wrote,
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22 NIVO)
If you have been with us throughout our study of James then there is no doubt that you’ve felt James’ finger poking and probing at times. James has caused me to stop and really consider so many things about my daily life. I shared with you just a few weeks ago while we were studying James insistence that we not “slander one another” what a deep impact that made on me. If you’ll remember, “slander” is not simply lying about someone, but it is saying anything that diminishes or casts someone in a bad light in the eyes of others. From God’s vantage point we can tell an absolute truth about someone we know and be guilty of slandering them. What I learned from studying James 4:11 has been with me ever since, like few lessons I’ve learned. I’m grateful for James poking me, prodding me, and reminding me to watch what I say at all times.
In our lesson for today, found in the opening verses of James 5, we find another area that we just don’t like to talk about, and that is money and power. This isn’t the first time James has brought up the subject of money and power. There are five main passages in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) where he deals with the topic of money and power. James doesn’t address money and power in some theoretical way, instead he tackles the topic by talking about real-life situations like favoritism being shown to wealthy people over poor people in the church and people who say they are followers of Jesus who then send the poor and needy away with nothing more than a prayer.
Why is money such a touchy topic? Some will say that it’s when the church talks about money that things become uncomfortable, but that’s just not true. Study after study has shown that one of the three main reasons couples divorce is because of money. Parents and their kids argue over money. I’ll never forget one of my mom’s favorite lines: “Do you think we have a money tree in the backyard?!” Most everyone thinks they need more money. It’s no wonder that Jesus spoke so often about money; the power of money, the deceptiveness of money, the allure of money, and the potential destructive power of money, as well as it’s proper use and its misuse. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables Jesus taught were about money and possessions. Jesus used parables like the pearl of great price, the lost coin, and the parable of the talents to teach those who had ears to hear. He told other parables like the story of the Prodigal Son who squandered his inheritance (Luke 15:11-32), Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), and the day laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) to teach powerful lessons. Some of Jesus’ most familiar teaching comes from what He taught about money. How about “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Or how about another, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
I believe the difficulty we have in talking about money stems from the fact that we are convinced that we have ownership over “our” money. “You can’t tell me what to do with ‘my money.’” The Bible teaches something much different than ownership when it comes to money. The Bible teaches that we are stewards, caretakers, and not owners of the resources God has blessed us with in life. Money, our wealth, is a blessing from God, but if we don’t understand the purpose of money and how God intends for us to use the resources He blesses us with, then money, intended to be a blessing, can become an all-consuming monster. Let’s take a look at our Scripture, found in James 5:1-6, and we’ll see what we can learn.
1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 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. 4 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. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5:1-6 NIVO)
Now, before we dig in I need to say that I know how some of you responded when I read the Scripture from James. Some among us were thinking, “Well, there’s no need for me to be here today. I’m the furthest thing from being rich.” Others bristled. It’s like James is pointing a long finger of condemnation at us and we don’t want to hear it. We’re not hard-hearted or tight-fisted so we shut down and put up a wall. Both of these responses will keep you and me from hearing what God has to teach us this morning.
Let me offer something to think about for those who say, “I”m the furthest thing from rich.” It is a fact that you and I live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. A single person making less than $14,000 a year in the United States is considered below the poverty level by our government. A family of four who makes $28,000 a year falls just below the poverty level. There’s no doubt that if you live below the poverty level it is a financial struggle, but compared to the 80% of the world who live on $10 a day, even those who live at the poverty level are all rich.
For those of us who have been incredibly blessed with great financial resources we desperately need to hear God’s Word coming to us this morning. We can’t afford to throw up a wall or become defensive. We have to be constantly aware of the potential deceptiveness of our wealth and our need for God’s constant reminders about why He has blessed us with our financial resources. We’ll get around to that before we leave here this morning, but first let’s turn our attention to James 1:1.
1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. (James 1:1 NIVO)
The question has been raised by Bible teachers concerning who James had in mind when he wrote these verses. Some say he was writing to wealthy members of the church. Dan Doriani writes,
There are reasons to believe James is addressing rich Christians. First, who would read or hear James’ letter but believers who have assembled for worship or fellowship? Second, all Christians are prone to the temptations of their age and social group. If rich believers adopt the lifestyle of their social peers, they could forget the biblical principles of justice and brotherhood that prevent abuse…Since no Christian is beyond the temptation to abuse power, James seems to be warning wealthy believers about temptations they face. (Doriani, Dan. James. pg. 165)
There’s no doubt that Dr. Doriani is right in saying that we so easily follow the culture of our time. Our society is saturated with success. Excess is marketed in every possible way each and every day. We’ve become convinced that money, and more of it, is the answer to our problems.
These things are true, but the vast majority of Bible teachers say James was writing to wealthy landowners who were not believers. Let me share with you some reasons why most believe this to be true. First, James in other places in his letter is quick to refer to those he’s writing as “brothers,” but not here. He simply calls them, “you rich people.” Second, he’s not calling these folks to repent, he tells them “weep and wail.” Last of all, he can already see their judgment in view. James holds out no hope of their salvation. What James is doing is what the prophets of the Old Testament did over and over again. If you read Isaiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, or Amos you’ll find them pronouncing judgment on Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and other nations even though there was no one from those nations present to hear the judgment. For example, the prophet Amos, in the opening verses of his prophecy announced the judgment of God on Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon, among others even though he was in Israel.
James, even if he is writing about wealthy landowners who are not believers, knows full well that all of the followers of Jesus are prone to use power to our own advantage and that we are also tempted to use our financial resources in a self-indulgent way. We are prone to do these things, but it doesn’t mean we are doomed to do these things. The great Bible teacher, John Calvin, believed James had something else in mind by addressing those outside the church who were using their wealth and power to oppress others. He writes that James
…has a regard for the faithful, that they, hearing of the miserable end of the rich, might not envy their fortune, and also that knowing that God would be the avenger of the wrongs they suffered, they might with a calm and resigned mind bear them. (Calvin, John. John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. pg. 342)
James doesn’t condemn wealth, what he does condemn is the misuse of wealth. Throughout God’s Word we learn that wealth is a blessing from God. Abraham, Joseph, Job, David, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea, and Lydia are just a short list of the many people who loved God and were very wealthy. They each traced their wealth straight to the grace of God. The problem arises when we don’t understand that it is God who has blessed us, not just Abraham, Solomon, Lydia and so many others, but each and every one of us with our financial blessings. Not keeping money in its proper place can lead to all kinds of problems, as it did for those James had in mind.
James highlights four actions on the behalf of the rich people he was warning the congregation about in James 5:1-6. James comes down hard on those who hoard their wealth, those who commit fraud and oppression, those who are self-indulgent, and those who commit violence.
I want you to notice that James tells the rich to “weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.” The word “wail” in Greek means, “to make a loud, inarticulate cry in expression of great stress of soul” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). If you’ve ever heard someone wailing, those deep, primal, gut-wrenching moans and cries then you get an idea of what James envisions happening to the rich who have misused their power and wealth. Why will they weep and wail? He tells us in vss. 2-3.
2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 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. (James 5:2-3 NIVO)
James instructs them to weep and wail, but he writes about their wealth, clothes, silver and gold as if they have already met their end. The three phrases, “rotted, moth-eaten, and rusted” are in the perfect tense, as if it has already taken place. God’s judgment is coming and on the day of judgment none of their prized possessions, luxurious homes, stock portfolios, or bank accounts will be worth a dime. This reminds me of something Ezekiel said to the people of his day. In Ezekiel 7:19 we read,
19 They will throw their silver into the streets, and their gold will be an unclean thing. Their silver and gold will not be able to save them in the day of the LORD’s wrath. They will not satisfy their hunger or fill their stomachs with it, for it has made them stumble into sin. (Ezekiel 7:19 NIVO)
Money is a wonderful tool, but money makes a horrible savior. We can’t trust in money to bring us satisfaction and meaning in life, to provide us with an identity, or to give us security. Now you need to recognize that our society promises us the more money we accumulate the more satisfaction we will gain, the more prestige we’ll enjoy, and the more security we’ll experience in life. It’s just not so.
I read a story this past week about Peter Grandich, who was a high school dropout who educated himself about the stock market. He had the Midas touch when it came to stocks. At the age of 31 he was dubbed, “The Wall Street Whiz Kid.” Peter’s wife was a devout follower of Jesus and Peter said he went to church with his wife now and then and gave lots of money, in his words, “mainly for show.” Truth is, Peter never gave Jesus a thought. He was too busy making money. Peter made millions by the time he was in his mid 30s. He bought homes, race horses, race cars, and told his wife that he was going to play golf every day for the rest of his life. The time came when he lost a lot of money and he became so obsessed with holding onto his wealth that he suffered from panic attacks and severe depression. After his second suicide attempt, police took him to a psychiatric ward where he met a homeless man. There was something different about the homeless man that made a lasting impact on Peter. Peter Grandich turned his life over to Jesus Christ. He began going to Bible study each week, he devoted himself to learning about God in the same way he had poured himself into learning about the markets. Peter discovered in the Bible that money is a miserable solution to life’s problems. Today, Peter understands what Paul shared with Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19.
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NIVO)
Hoarding our wealth so we can accumulate as much as we possibly can for ourselves and our own pleasures will never bring about satisfaction. Peter Grandich wasn’t the first person to discover this truth. Solomon, the richest man who has ever lived, wrote,
10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 5:10 NIVO)
With money comes power and the misuse of the power afforded by wealth comes under God’s scrutiny over and over again in Scripture. James writes,
4 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. (James 5:4 NIVO)
The rich landowners that James had in mind weren’t paying their workers what they were owed. For many who do not understand that God calls us to be stewards of the financial resources He provides for us, we can easily allow our money to convince us that we are somehow better than those who work for us and that we can take advantage of them. God’s Word is clear, crystal clear on how to treat workers. In Deuteronomy 24:14-15 we read,
14 Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. 15 Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NIVO)
I have a friend who is a waitress at a steakhouse in town. I had heard a rumor that waiters and waitresses hate to work on Sundays because Christians are the worst tippers in the world. I asked my friend about it and was told, “Absolutely! The people I work with hate to pull a shift on Sunday.” That breaks my heart. We should be the most generous of givers.
I have another friend who does yardwork. He and his crews do amazing work with everything you and I need when it comes to flower beds and taking care of our yards. He is so good at what he does and he works long, long hours. We were talking one day about his work and all of the places where he has clients. While we were talking he told me the two most difficult neighborhoods that he works in…neither of them were North Highlands. They were two of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Oklahoma City. I asked him why he didn’t like doing business in those neighborhoods? He said, “They never accept the price I give them. They always want it done for less. Then, after I do the work they are so slow to pay me.” James says, “The cries of the workers have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
Next, James points out how those he had in mind were living luxuriously as they indulged themselves. In our Wednesday night Bible study we were listening to Ravi Zacharias talk about the differences between hedonism and Christianity. Hedonism, for those who are unfamiliar with the term is the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. Everything revolves around experiencing pleasure and indulging myself with everything I want in life. This is the lifestyle of those James had in mind when he wrote,
5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. (James 5:5 NIVO)
Many people today believe that if you become a follower of Jesus that you have to renounce any kind of pleasure for the rest of your life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ravi pointed out for us that God is the Author of pleasure. He created scrumptious food, awe-inspiring sunrises and sunsets, laughter and joy, and so many other things that can bring us pleasure in life. When a gift is made an ultimate end in life then we’ve got problems although we are blinded to the fact. This reminds me of the situation of the women of Sodom that Ezekiel describes for us in Ezekiel 16:49-50. Read along with me.
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NIVO)
The women of Sodom were so consumed by their wonderful lives that they were oblivious to the judgment that was on its way. The women of Sodom as well as the people James had in mind were living only for life “on earth,” as James says. It is so important for you and me to constantly be aware that there is much more to life than life on this earth.
Last of all, James ends his scathing rebuke of the rich who are hoarding their wealth, withholding what is due their workers, and indulging themselves, by saying,
6 You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5:6 NIVO)
It’s interesting that the Greek word translated, “condemned,” is likely a legal action which reminds us of what James said in 2:6 about the rich who haul the poor into court. The rich were known for using the court system to take advantage of the poor who didn’t have the money to defend themselves. Dan Doriani writes,
Those who had power and wealth on their side won in court, not those who had justice. The courts were governed by patronage, clan, and tribe, not objective justice (Doriani, Dan. James. pg. 172).
Solomon once said there is nothing new under the sun. Isn’t the same thing going on today? Those who have the resources can use our legal system to take advantage of those who lack resources.
In the NIV translation the condemnation and murder is of “innocent men,” but in the Greek New Testament this phrase is one word, “the righteous,” singular. The righteous does not resist the condemnation and murder of those who set their sights on taking advantage of him. Now, we don’t know who James had in mind when he wrote this, but you and I can surely think of no greater example of a righteous man being condemned, taken advantage of, and even murdered at the hands of unjust people than Jesus Himself. Dr. Alec Motyer wrote,
It is in fact surely impossible to read the words killed the righteous man; he does not resist without the lone and wonderful figure of the Lord Jesus coming to mind. He is pre-eminently the Righteous One-his response of non-resistance is at one and the same time the most demanding example and the sweetest consolation in time of oppression…Judas sold his Lord for money and the wholly Righteous One bowed to the act. Thus James exposes the sinfulness of those whose lives acknowledge only the lordship of money, and plots the pathway ahead for those who suffer as a result. (Motyer, J.A. The Message of James. pg. 169)
Money is a wonderful tool to provide for us what we need in life, to bless the lives of others who are in need, and to bring glory to the Kingdom of God when it is used by those who understand why God gives us financial resources. Make no mistake about it, money can also be a monster in the hands of those who claim ownership and not stewardship of the money they have. I hope this morning you and I will recognize our need for the Lord’s constant watchful eye to lead us, instruct us, and convict us when we get off track.
Britton Christian Church
May 27, 2018