Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Today, we begin the fifth chapter of the letter of James.
This is the last chapter of the book.
We’ve only got a few more weeks in this letter.
And I’m sure some of us are glad we’re almost done with this series.
This has been a challenging read for us
because James has been hitting us over and over again
as there are nearly 60 commands in these five short chapters.
Live like this and but don’t live like that.
Pursue this but don’t pursue that.
Follow this way but don’t go that way.
James is a challenging read but also a good, worthwhile study for us.
This letter has a knack for bringing home
the practical aspects of living as a follower of Jesus.
— of how our beliefs, attitudes, and actions cannot remain divorced
from each other but need to come together in a tangible and consistent way.
Belief, attitudes and actions coming together.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found a number of these different looks into the mirror challenging and needing more than just a second look.
A person who had lost their way came across another person by the side of the road and asked for a little guidance.
The person by the side of the road appeared to be mute
as they made signs by their hands
– indicating that they would direct the lost stranger
if they were paid for doing so.
Grasping what the person by the side of road’s meaning,
the lost stranger handed over some money.
When that happened, the person by the side of road
suddenly began to speak – directing the lost stranger
by word of mouth.
Grateful for the assistance but still confused,
the stranger asked before continuing on,
“Why did you act like you couldn’t speak until I gave you some money?”
The person by the side of the road quickly answered,
“Because I learned a long time ago that it is only money that talks.”
“Money talks and…” well, you probably know the rest of that expression.
But if it’s true, that money talks, then the question is,
what does the money – the wealth and the resources
– that we possess, say about us and the lives we’re living?
This is the question we’ll be wrestling with
as James returns to the gap between words and deeds
—between what is and what should be
– specifically related to money, to wealth, to the resources we have been given.
And if we think James is slowing down as his letter draws to a close,
get ready because he’s about to come high and inside
with some of his strongest, harshest words yet.
Here it comes from James, chapter 5, verses 1-6.
Yet again, James comes out of the gate hot and on fire.
“Now listen, you rich people,
weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.”
This is the 3rd time in this short letter that money is the topic
as James challenges the “rich” – wealthy people.
including both believers and non-believers.
But specifically, James is speaking to rich Christians.
Perhaps we’re thinking,
“Whew! Thank God for that, because James then, certainly isn’t talking to me!”
However, before we move too quickly to distance ourselves
from what James has to say, let’s be mindful of a few things.
First, pretty much all of us listening to this message
are blessed to possess a higher and wealthier standard of living
than the richest of those to whom James was first writing.
Second, while everybody who is receiving this message today
is in a different situation, the majority of us would be
in the rich category as far as James is concerned.
Why, we might ask as we continue to protest, we are not among the rich.
Here’s a gentle reminder of why.
By the standards of 80% of all the people in the world,
do we have the following in our possession?
• Food for more than two meals
• A car (mind you, I only asked if we had one car!)
• A place to live with a roof, with lights, heat,
and clean water (indoor plumbing)
• More than two outfits of clothing
If we answered “Yes” to these questions, then we have WAY more than the majority of the world’s population, and that makes all of us, RICH, WEALTHY.
Understanding that we are in fact whom James is talking to,
we find ourselves much more uncomfortable as James tell us
to weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon us.
What misery is coming our way? And why?
James will be more specific in the verses that follow.
Before we press on, however,
we need to be clear on what James is and is not saying
so that we can fully understand his message to us actually is.
James is not making an indiscriminate attack on the rich.
If we review our Bibles,
there are several servants of the Lord who were rich:
Abraham, Job, King David, King Josiah,
Joseph of Arimathea, Philemon, and Lydia – to name a few.
James is not condemning having money or wealth either.
The Bible is often misquoted as saying that “Money is the root of all evil.”
However, the correct quote from 1 Timothy 6 is
“the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
James, in calling the rich to mourn, is not calling us either
to lament being rich or to forsake the wealth we have.
No, as the following verses reveal,
the amount of money we possess is not important;
it is how we gain and how we view the money we receive.
Having wealth is not the issue.
It’s what we do with the wealth we have been given that matters.
In verses 2 – 3, James, looking ahead to the end of all things – “the last days” when we each will stand before Jesus, and he renders a verdict in the past tense.
He writes, “Your wealth has rotted, moths have eaten your clothes,
and your gold and silver are corroded.”
There were three categorial classes of riches
in the Roman world: grain, garments, and gold.
So, in one sense, James is directly addressing
how his original audience living in the ancient world
would have evaluated their prosperity.
At the same, James is speaking beyond this time period
as he makes a three-fold repetition of the same point
– the transitory nature of material goods, the perishability of riches.
Grain rots. Clothes fall apart.
Gold, in the yield of eternity, corrodes or decreases in value.
James is assessing the ultimate return
the rich will receive based on their investments;
if they have based the success, the security, and the salvation
of their lives upon their material wealth.
He frames the outcome in ironic and cautionary language at the end of verse 3.
All that is being treasured up is not lasting wealth.
Our material riches in all its forms – money, power, influence, property,
will not endure the scrutiny of divine judgment
– of giving an account of our lives before Christ
– of what we made of, how we exercised the grace we have been by God.
There’s a well-known saying, “He or she who dies with the most toys wins.”
James, here, begs to differ with this popular philosophy of life.
Writing of how all our material wealth will “eat our flesh like fire,”
James might have put it this way,
“He or she who dies with the most toys will not escape hell.”
James warns, if we pride our lives on our material wealth,
such treasure will serve to accuse and testify against us
in revealing what we have truly lived for
despite claiming our allegiance to Christ.
Again, let me restate. The issue is not having wealth or being rich.
The issue is how we seek to acquire our riches
and what we do with the wealth we are given.
James goes on to highlight four specific wrongs
when it comes to how we pursue riches and handle wealth:
hoarding, fraud, personal excess, and injustice.
James declares, “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”
Hoarding is stockpiling beyond what is necessary.
It is exercising a measure of power and control that does not trust God to provide because it doesn’t trust what God already has provided.
Hoarding is holding onto more than is needed for yourself.
It is accumulating more for me
– to ensure not the well-being of others
but of myself, my family, my people.
Hoarding easily becomes an addiction because
once I convince myself there is not enough,
I will always need to acquire more
– more security, more control, more material provisions.
But not just James, Jesus himself,
prohibited this kind of mindset and action
in terms of our material wealth,
when he told the story of the rich fool
who kept building bigger barns to store
rather than share his growing harvest.
Jesus began that parable by declaring
“life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”
and he ended that story by urging us
not “to store up things for ourselves but instead to be rich toward God.”
All that glitters is not gold.
And true gold is not found in amassing material wealth.
The folly of hoarding our material wealth
is exposed in its perishable nature.
It is not ultimately productive
because it does not last.
In the end, it is lost.
The second misappropriation of material wealth James highlights involves fraud.
In verse 4, James writes of
the rich “failing to pay the workers who mowed your fields”
One of the essential and repeated tenets in the law of God
is paying those who work for you what they are worth.
In books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
the Lord explicitly calls His people not to
defraud or rob those who work for you.
God specifically calls us not to
take advantage of hired workers
– especially those who are disadvantaged or foreigners.
We are both to pay fair and living wages
to those who work for us
and to pay them in a timely manner
— meaning not to withhold them
if the work has been done.
And yet, James charges this is exactly
what is happening within the Christian community.
The rich had held back wages.
The workers had cried out to the Lord.
And like the blood of Abel spilled by his brother Cain,
like the moaning of the Hebrews
who were oppressed in Egypt,
the cries of unpaid wages
and mistreated workers at the hands of the rich
had reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
Maybe we all ought to keep this in mind
when we vote in just a few weeks
– that we may be physically alone in the ballot box
but that the Lord hears the cries
of those who are affected
– who are abused or mistreated
because of how we vote or don’t vote.
The third abuse by the rich
that James emphasizes is personal excess.
Verse 5: “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.”
Why does God bless us with the wealth
and the resources we possess,
– be it time, money, property,
skills, experience, influence, etc.?
Is it for our glory or for His?
James faults the rich who use their riches
for their glory rather than God’s.
It’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t
enjoy the good things that God gives us.
When the Lord created this world
and declared it to be good
– part of that goodness was
God calling us to enjoy what He has made,
what He provides for us.
James is rebuking an attitude of excess
– where our personal pleasure and enjoyment
exceeds or supersedes exercising all we have been given
for God’s glory – for the Lord’s pleasure and enjoyment.
And what brings God glory?
What pleases the Lord – bringing our Creator joy?
When we take what we’ve been given
and use it to love and to serve,
to encourage and to protect,
to heal and to better the lives of others
– particularly those in need.
Interestingly, the connotation of
the word used here by James
translated as “luxury” isn’t about
the rich going hog wild in wanton vice.
The heart of this word, as James uses it,
is about the rich taking from
rather than giving to those in need
– for the increased benefit and
excessive pleasure of the rich.
In other words, James is equating
personal excess and extravagant self-indulgence
with denying or robbing those in need
of what God has ordained to be rightfully theirs.
Jesus once said the rich who live like this
were to be pitied because on earth
they already had received their comfort and their reward.
James, echoing his older step-brother,
expresses things a little less delicately
as he asserts those who pamper themselves
with the most lavish lifestyle they can afford
are in fact, fattening themselves up for the slaughter.
We are meant to enjoy life and the things of this life.
But when we live to personal excess
– as we become content to just grow old, fat, and happy
– instead growing lean with discipline and becoming healthier
is seeking to meet the needs of others,
we are disinheriting ourselves from the Kingdom of God.
If that sounds harsh, let us remember what Jesus taught us.
“We cannot serve two masters.
Either we will hate the one and love the other,
or we will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
We cannot serve both God and wealth.”
Self-indulgence in the accumulation of wealth
is progressively addictive;
it always, inevitably leads to our destruction.
The fourth and final abuse James puts forth
on the part of the rich in verse 6 is injustice:
“You have condemned and murdered
the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”
James is talking about judicial “murder”
– in other words, the rich are using the legal system
to take away the means of others to make a living.
What is being implied here is
wealthy landowners were abusing their power
through the court systems of the day.
The wealthy were either dragging
smaller, poorer, indebted farmers
into court on charges, legitimate or not.
Being sued, with little or no resources
to defend themselves,
the poor would be stripped of their land
and thus, their way to make a living.
In the Jewish world,
to deprive a person of
their means of support
was the same as murdering them.
Given that a poor person in the ancient world
who was sued lost what little they had left,
their murder by the rich could be literal as well
since they would be left to die of starvation.
James gives us four specific examples of abuses by the rich.
Once again, scripture becomes a mirror
held up to us by which we must take
a long, hard look at our lives
– in terms of both how we obtain our riches
and how we leverage the wealth we have.
No doubt we may still find it hard to perceive
how any of us – we who are Christians –
could ever live a life like the one characterized
by James here – a life of corruption, of theft,
of excess, and even, orchestrated murder.
But before we say, that’s not me, I’m off the hook,
let’s not start where James ends but where the trouble starts
– the subtle shifts that we can make in how we view our wealth.
Let’s begin again with the fact that despite what I shared at the start of this sermon, many of us still aren’t convinced that we are rich.
As we keep denying we are wealthy,
let’s be honest about how many times
we can look at a closet stuffed with clothes
and still bemoan that we have nothing to wear.
Let’s keep it real and confess how often
we go to our cupboards, our pantries and our refrigerators
filled with food and yet complain we have nothing to eat.
Let’s tell the truth about how we have the luxury of filling attics or garages or even of paying for storage units in order to keep a multitude of things we don’t use – so much stuff that we don’t even remember all we’ve got.
Let’s stop avoiding the obvious.
That we, you and I, are richly blessed with wealth and resources.
Despite our excuses, most of us can do way more than we think we can.
Despite our protestations, we rarely if at all ever lack for anything let alone go hungry or without. We are clothed and warm and secure.
Let us have ears to hear what God is saying to us through this passage in James.
While I would certainly hope that none of us are hoarding or being fraudulent, holding back wages, living to excess, or cheating others to advance our own pocketbooks, the heart of the matter are not the extremes that James calls out here but the motivation and the means by which we exercise whatever wealth and resources we have.
Let us understand God knows how we gain our wealth.
Let us understand God knows how we use your wealth.
Let us understand God will hold us accountable for our wealth
– how we gained what we have and for how we leveraged
what we were given for His glory.
“To whom much is given, much is required.”
This is a principle Jesus teaches us
in the Parable of the Talents in Luke, chapter 12.
Beloved, if money talks, what is the money,
the wealth you’ve been blessed with, saying?
What does it say about YOU?
Let us search our hearts, as “rich people,” for our attitudes concerning wealth.
Are we saving or hoarding? Are we generous or stingy?
Let us ask the Holy Spirit this question:
“Are we trusting in our wealth?” Let us listen closely for the answer.
Are my business practices reflecting my faith in Christ?
Let us consider those who we hire and have financial influence over.
Again, let us ask the Holy Spirit,
“Are we treating those whom we hire, who work for us, fairly and honorably?”
Are we short-changing those who serve us – always trying to pay less – priding ourselves on getting a bargain and yet fattening our purse while those we hire – either as long-term employees or for the moment as a waiter, a driver, or other server, struggle to make ends meet for themselves and their families?
Could we trade places with those who serve us without struggling or suffering?
A couple of dollars might mean nothing to us
– small change – but if that’s if the difference
in those couple of dollars is your only income
that could be the difference between going to bed full or hungry.
Are my spending habits and standard of living a witness
to my personal excess or to honest, personal necessity?
Are we addicted to consumption?
Before all our luxuries and self-indulgences,
do we need to admit we have a problem
– that we have convinced ourselves
we can buy our way into joy, happiness, or freedom?
Will I stand before Jesus on the last day feeling comfortable
with how I’ve stewarded the wealth and resources God has given me?
Will we be guilty of accumulating riches on the backs of others?
Will we be able to justify all the voting decisions I’ve made
and the legal actions we’ve taken as leveraging our resources for the Kingdom of God or did we bow before the economics of humanity and the court of public opinion?
Beloved, there is no way to sugarcoat this.
We’re rich and if we, as those who are rich, oppress those in need,
we are not following Jesus, we are standing in opposition to Christ.
It’s not about how much money you have, how much wealth we amass, how many resources we attain. All that stuff are means for us to extend, to share, and to invest our true riches and wealth which is grace.
The invitation and challenge before us is this,
God abundantly gives us grace, how are we using that grace for abundant good
— abundant good for God, which means abundant good for others
– particularly, those in need.
All of God-given riches, all of our God-given wealth is of the same currency, grace. And grace cannot be hoarded. There is no basis or justification for withholding grace. Grace is not for our personal indulgence but for the better of others. Grace is forsaken, rejected whenever injustice is supported or tolerated.
Material wealth – money and possessions – rightly received and exercised – are a means of grace. As a means of anything else, material wealth becomes addictive, consuming, and destructive. The only way we can rightly receive and exercise all material wealth as a means of grace is by becoming generous.
Generosity is part of the fruit the Spirit seeks to cultivate in us.
Generosity is the character of God and therefore, who in Christ, the kind of people we are destined together to become.
Generosity borne of the Spirit inoculates us against materialism.
Generosity borne of the Spirit untangles us from the stuff we think we own but really is attempting to own us.
Generosity borne of the Spirit teaches us the richest investment we can ever make is to invest in other people and to build them up.
Generosity borne of the Spirit reveals to us the most satisfied people are those spend the wealth and resources they have been given for the sake of serving others.
Your money’s talking. My money’s talking.
The question is: what is it saying?
Our earthly wealth is more temporary than we know,
and our eternal wealth is more valuable that we imagine.
So, beloved, the question isn’t can we afford to be generous?
The question is can we really afford not to be?