Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Let me ask you a question.
Do you consider yourself rich or poor? Wealthy or lacking?
Do you view yourself as one of the haves or the have-nots?
Where would you place yourself on the socio-economic spectrum?
I’d imagine most of us would say, we’re middle class people. Not rich, not poor. Somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum.
We might be surprised to learn that there was no middle class during the time in which James wrote this letter to the early church.
There was no middle class in the Roman Empire.
90% of the Roman Empire lived at or behold what we would call the POVERTY level.
In the first century, as the Church began to grow and develop,
many of the early Christians came from the poorest classes.
Several believers were slaves – prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or foreigners bought outside Roman territory.
Other believers lacked a rudimentary education as well as consistent access to basic resources like food and shelter, and thus relied on the compassion of benefactors.
At the same time, some of those who came to faith in Christ were affluent and wealthy citizens of Rome. They were those who owned land and their own homes. They were relatively prosperous merchants and tradespersons.
So, imagine this. Seated in the same congregation at a particular gathering time might be a slave who owned nothing, and a wealthy business man who owned a sprawling Roman estate.
It is to those two drastically different economic classes
that James writes in our passage for today.
Now, we may wonder, why does James jump from first talking about enduring trials (where this letter started) and then calling us to ask God for wisdom with confident faith (which we looked at last week), to delving into socio-economics – matters of wealth and possessions.
The answer might be that matters of wealth and possessions – dealing with having and not having them – can be the biggest trial, the greatest challenge we face in terms of being in right relationship with God and certainly, right relationship with each other.
Especially in an increasingly consumerist world like ours, we need a lot of divine wisdom when it comes to evaluating and handling wealth and possessions.
So, let’s brace ourselves as our faith is going to get real and maybe even clash with our reality.
If there is a variance between what we say we believe and how we actually live, James is about to expose that gap.
Regardless of our perceived economic status, and the class we believe we occupy within society, let us listen carefully as what James shares is critical advice about dollars and sense.
Let us dare to be challenged to think wisely and biblically about the issue of wealth and possessions and the place they should have in our lives as followers of Christ.
Here is today’s reading…
Before we begin, let’s establish two things when it comes to wealth and possessions.
First, the definitions of prosperity and poverty – the rich and the poor – are always relative both to the place and culture in which you live.
Depending on which way we look at, we either belong to
the “haves” or the “have-nots” but the point is,
we all to some degree, have as well as have not.
Second, while any conversation about wealth and possessions
certainly includes money and material property
– and this is primarily what James is focused on here
– our wealth and our possessions also include other non-material things
– like intelligence, creativity, physical strength, and other skills
– things that are valuable enough that they become associated with money.
Given both of these things, let’s now be honest about
how we tend to view and to treat wealth and possessions.
We all know the saying that wealth, money doesn’t buy happiness.
We say this, but we sure act otherwise, don’t we?
Don’t you and I tend to look at those around us who HAVE
– whom we deem as wealthy – and perceive that they’ve made it.
They’ve arrived. They’re were we want to be – someday.
If we could only HAVE what they HAVE, then we’d have enough. We’d have it all.
On the other hand, we turn and look at those around us who HAVE NOT
– those whom we deem as poor and lacking – and we assess them to be far behind.
How hard it must be for them.
Where they are, is not where we want to be. We never what to end up there.
Truth be told that’s how most of us see things
when it comes to being rich or being poor.
But in this passage, James says “Not so fast!”
Look again. Think again. Listen well.
The humble or poor person is actually in a higher position that he or she realizes.
And the rich person is actually in a worse position than he or she perceives.
In just three verses, James inverts our expectations – how we see the world.
Echoing his older half-brother, Jesus – specifically Christ’s Sermon on the Mount,
we can’t hear a bit of the beatitudes in these verses.
So, what exactly is James sharing with us?
First, James addresses “believers in humble circumstances” – the connotation of the actual word being used here is someone who has been brought low or occupies a lowly position.
This is James’ delicate way of referring to those who are designated as poor
– in the world’s eyes but importantly, not in the eyes of God.
Hence, James calls for those brought low
– to boast or to take pride in their high position.
Those who perceive themselves to be the have-nots – either from the perspective of others or from their own self-evaluation – can be tempted to feel insignificant.
In a world where a person’s value and status is judged based on
their wealth and possessions, it can be easy to believe one is powerless.
When we view ourselves as lacking wealth and possessions,
it doesn’t take long for us to become fixated on our dissatisfaction with our situation.
We can be tempted to believe my life would be better
if only we had whatever it is that we don’t have.
James counters such a mindset by declaring
a different economy of scale in the Kingdom of God.
He is echoing Jesus who once declared those who are humbled will be exalted,
and those who are exalted will be humbled.
James tells us any absence of wealth and possessions in one’s life
does not make one lowly in the estimation of God.
If we believe in a gospel of grace, then God’s favor and blessing upon our lives – coming to us in Christ and empowering to follow and become like Jesus,
have nothing to do with the wealth and our possessions that we have.
Rather than fixating on what we do not have,
James calls those who believe they are lacking to focus, to take pride in
what really counts – the love, the forgiveness, the grace, the truth of the Gospel
and the presence and power of the Word and the Spirit that is ours now and forever.
In our relationship and reliance upon Christ, we have everything we need.
Anything and everything else – whatever wealth and possessions we have
– can result in obstacles in following Jesus, if we are not careful.
This leads us to what James has to say to the rich.
Again, from the vantage of point of someone who views themselves as a HAVE-NOT, the rich, the HAVES appear to have no difficulties. Their life is good. Their life is easier.
However, the challenges for the rich – the trials they face
– are evidenced by James’ rather harsh admonition for the rich
to take pride in their humiliation – since they will pass away like a wild flower.
We have to read between the lines to capture what James is cautioning against here.
In contrast to what he just shared about the poor, the humble,
James is basically saying those who are estimated are being in high standing
in the world’s eyes, who themselves take stock in all their wealth and possessions,
will inevitably be brought low.
The exalted will be humbled. Why?
James provides the answer to this question by drawing upon imagery and associations we find in the prophet Isaiah, in Psalm 103, and again, calling to mind Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount.
We can picture fields of grass, the green vegetation that covers a field or a meadow after winter passes and life is renewed.
Flowers of rich brightness and color often dot such fields.
And yet despite their brilliance and beauty,
both the grass and the flowers have a limited, a short-lived time of blooming.
Where James grew up, among the hills and valleys of Israel, in Galilee,
carpets of flowers erupted in the midst of vibrant green landscapes in the springtime.
But these did not last long as the weather soon evolved into hot, dry season.
The rising sun of the summer morning would bring a searing east wind from the Arabian desert that inevitably extinguished both the grass and the flowers.
So, it is with our lives.
Why will those who are exalted in view of the world and in their own eyes
eventually be humbled?
Because both rich and poor have one thing in common: they will both die.
And in death, all our earthly wealth and possessions will fade away.
They are only temporary. They do not last.
Something important to notice here.
James never tells us to shun or to refuse wealth and possessions.
What James is saying is to be careful about
how we view or treat our wealth and possessions.
The ultimate temptation, the biggest challenge we face
in terms of whatever wealth or possessions we have is
to become convinced, we delude ourselves into believing
we’ve earned it all that we are and all that we have.
That we deserve it.
that we own all our wealth and possessions in whatever form they take.
Beloved, hear this – please.
While the wealth and possessions we are given are all blessings from God,
our success or our failure in this life are not as a result of God’s blessing.
What we do with what we have been given is up to us.
In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the Master doesn’t tell all the servants “What you did or did not do with the talents I gave you was a sign of my blessing or disfavor.”
No, the Master holds each servant accountable for what they did with what they were given.
Beyond the parable, success and failure in this life also comes from many factors beyond ourselves.
We live in a world that is being healed but that is still broken and not the way it is supposed to be.
Success and failure in this life are not just about what we do.
Those who have ever lost their livelihood due to recession, corporate sale,
office relocation, crop failure, hurricane damage, COVID-19,
or a thousand other factors can testify to that.
God does not promise us economic success at work, nor does he doom us to failure.
However, God does hold us accountable for
being faithful with what we have been given.
Those who experience lack or failure in this life
should not perceive this is due to God’s disfavor or curse.
Likewise, those who have more and succeed in this life
should not believe this is a sign of God’s blessing
what they have or what they are doing.
When we buy into a health and prosperity Gospel that is false,
we always end up becoming more invested and satisfied in our wealth and possessions – rather than in the Giver – the true provider and owner – of whatever we have.
And once this happens, once we take pride in all our stuff, once we base our identity on our wealth and possessions (notice the pronoun there – OUR),
we will begin to act like we are self-sufficient, self-made.
In so doing, we will look upon those who do not have what we do
as being inferior to us.
We will judge and even condemn them as not working as hard as we do
and therefore, not deserving of all the rewards and achievements we’ve earned.
But James warns against such a mindset.
Our elevation based upon our wealth and our possessions will be our downfall.
Notice that James in stressing how the riches of this world will certainly fade away
–also highlights in verse 11 how those who take pride in their wealth and possessions will themselves fade away even as they go about their business.
When we find our identity, and stake our lives based on
the wealth and possessions we have, rather than becoming our best selves in Christ,
we will divorce ourselves from our relationship with Jesus
and instead become enslaved to our perceived riches.
Instead of following Jesus, we will just keep running on
the hamster wheel of paychecks, devising foolish schemes to gain more wealth,
to multiply our pleasure, all the while dying just a little more inside,
fading away inside as we are never truly satisfied,
as we keep comparing ourselves to others, as we just keep wanting MORE.
As we become consumed by what we consume.
As what we possess ends up possessing us.
What exactly is James trying to convey to us here?
That we should go around with a constant awareness of our own mortality
and to live in the shadow of our impending demise?
Is James encouraging us to seek to be poor
– to divest ourselves of all wealth and possessions?
The answer to both of these questions is Yes and No.
Yes, James in concert with the rest of the scriptures,
wants to confront the fact that we have no control over how quickly
this life goes – that the time when we will no longer call this earth
our dwelling place grows closer and closer every day we wake up.
But at the same time, James is not telling us to live in state of utter abjection and complete withdrawal from those around us, the world around us, just bracing for the day of our death – becoming so heavenly minded, that we are no earthly good.
Rather, the perspective James seeks for us to adopt is to value each moment
that God in His grace has given.
For it is all from Him.
We do not keep our hearts beating, the air coming in and out of our lungs,
the blood flowing in our veins.
James desires for us to acknowledge that we are in God’s hands
in every circumstance of our life, that our lives are not our own.
Along these same lines, no, James is not telling us to make ourselves poor
in the sense of releasing everything we have been given by God.
Especially when we widen our understanding of wealth and possessions
beyond the material to include all that the Lord provides
– brains, brawn, creativity, and other skills,
it is wrong to forsake – not to use – that which what God has resourced us.
Key word there in how to view whatever wealth and possessions we have
– as resources.
God has resourced each of us, all of us together, for a reason
– to be conduits of His grace and blessing to others
– to become agents of change – ambassadors of His Kingdom in this world.
But as the same time, the answer is yes.
If there is some part of the resources we have been given
– the wealth and possessions that we have that becomes a distraction or worse,
an obsession in its own right – and gets in the way or competes with
our relationship with Jesus, then yes, we need to relinquish whatever that is.
We need to give it completely away rather than to hold onto to it
– to become poor in relation to whatever it is for the sake of
becoming rich in our relationship with Christ.
This, btw, was Jesus’ point to the rich, young ruler.
But that he wouldn’t let it go and so he walked away on his own fading off
into the distance as he went about his business rather than the Lord’s.
As James is talking to us today, who do we perceive ourselves to be
– the humble or the proud, among the poor or the rich?
Few among us would consider ourselves to be wealthy.
After all, we know people who have bigger houses and cars than we have,
more money and possessions that we could ever dream of.
Most of us feel that we are just average folk. Middle class, right?
Listen to this.
According to Charles Schwab’s 2019 Modern Wealth Survey,
which asked adults between ages of 21 and 75
what personal net worth they would need in order to be wealthy,
for most Americans having a million dollars isn’t enough to be considered “wealthy.”
The responses varied by generation.
Gen Z said takes $1.49 million to be considered wealthy.
Millennials: It takes $1.94 million to be considered wealthy.
Gen X: It takes $2.53 million to be considered wealthy.
Boomers: It takes $2.63 million to be considered wealthy
We don’t consider ourselves to be wealthy.
And yet, we live at a time when globally, 10 percent of the world
is living on less than $2 a day.
That’s just over 700 million people living in extreme poverty.
Even broader measures show that billions still struggle to meet basic needs.
Nearly half the world’s population (3.4 billion people) lives on less than $5.50 a day.
I challenge us to try that for one day. To live on $5.50 for the day.
My friends, you and I, we are wealthy. We are the rich to whom James is talking to.
Ask yourself. What are you lacking that you could reasonably want?
Most of us can put food on our table no problem.
Most of us have more clothing in our closet than
many of our ancestors possessed in a whole lifetime.
Not just in past generations but in most places around the world, the houses and gardens we own or rent far exceed the accommodations of billions of people.
Access to education and health care.
Basic sanitation and clean water.
What we take as a given, as obvious rights, countless others are still waiting to receive.
If we recognize that we are wealthy,
if are willing to confront whether or not
we define ourselves and we evaluate others
based upon our wealth and possessions,
then we can learn from James’ advice.
We cannot as followers of Jesus continue to say
we believe in the grace of God and yet live as those
who act like who we are and where we stand in relation to others
is based on what we think we’ve earned, what we insist we’ve achieved,
what we argue we deserve.
All that we have – any wealth or possessions that we claim
– have been given to us by God.
It’s all grace.
Grace given to become grace shared.
Beloved, wealth and possessions are perhaps our greatest trial and challenge
– both lacking them and having them.
Both desiring what one’s doesn’t have or assuming ownership in what one’s does have – can be obstacles to trusting in God and following Christ.
James declares to us, the truly wise, whether they have or have-not,
will recognize their equal and shared riches in belonging to
– being forgiven, being saved, being empowered for the better
and being transformed for the best, by Jesus.
In whatever wealth or possessions, we claim,
we each have been resourced by our Creator
not to pamper or to invest in ourselves
but to use, to devote for the sake of the betterment of all persons.
We have been entrusted to good works
– works that do not save us or merit us anything
– but works that contribute to the witness of the coming Kingdom of God
– rather than building empires of our own.
These are the treasures of heaven.
This is only kind of wealth that will not fade.
Our possession and our investment, and all the dividends
that flow out of God’s love, grace, and truth given to us and shared by us with others.