James 5:1-6 – Avoid the Temptations of Wealth

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on 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 workers 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 the innocent one, who was not opposing you. (New International Version)

Everyone’s station in life has it’s own particular temptations. It just so happens that in the church for which the Apostle James wrote his letter, the wealthy persons had completely given in to the temptation of using wealth to build more wealth on the backs of the poor. And the Apostle called them out on it.

Just because you nor I might not be rich in assets and wealth, doesn’t mean today’s New Testament lesson has nothing to do with us. We all inhabit some position of influence or authority, as well as own something, even if it is not much. So, how we use what has been given to us by God is of utmost importance for everyone.

The poor are tempted to envy the rich. And the rich are tempted to trust in their money, resources, and business acumen with no thought to God. Both rich and poor can identify so closely with their respective situations that their primary identity is defined by wealth, or the lack thereof.

Hoarding Wealth

Its not unusual for a person who appears middle or lower class to have hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed away. I have met more than a few of them in my life. Some people die millionaires, having been penny pinchers their entire lives.

Stockpiling wealth, whether hiding it or flaunting it, without the intention of using it for godly purposes is tragic. No one is blessed with such an approach to wealth. Money is temporary; relationships are permanent. A wise Christian focuses on storing heavenly treasure and taking an eternal view of their resources.

Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse! —stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being. (Matthew 6:19-21, MSG)

Fraudulent Wealth

A person can become addicted to wealth, or so desire to be wealthy that they use illegal and dishonest ways of obtaining it and holding on to it. Withholding wages from workers is a crime, both legally and biblically. In the ancient world, and still in many places around the globe today, workers are paid daily, at the end of the day. To not receive their pay means their families will go hungry that night.

Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEB)

Self-Indulgent Wealth

The one living completely for self is only building wealth in vain, like a hog being fattened for the slaughter. Day-dreaming and fantasizing about possessing money for personal indulgence, at the expense of others, will not end well.

Jesus said, “Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. People do not get life from the many things they own.”

Then Jesus used this story: “There was a rich man who had some land. His land grew a very good crop of food. He thought to himself, ‘What will I do? I have no place to keep all my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘I know what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns! I will put all my wheat and good things together in my new barns. Then I can say to myself, I have many good things stored. I have saved enough for many years. Rest, eat, drink, and enjoy life!’

“But God said to that man, ‘Foolish man! Tonight, you will die. So, what about the things you prepared for yourself? Who will get those things now?’ (Luke 12:15-20, ERV)

Murderous Wealth

When the rich and powerful are so bent on accumulating and hoarding wealth, they step all over workers to get what they want. And the poor laborers possess neither the ability nor the authority to handle the injustice. They are helpless.

By withholding wages and resources, or purposefully paying a non-living wage, the neglect puts people in poverty. Then, the poor struggle to survive. They may starve, even die, through no fault of their own. And the ones who put them in such a position will have to answer to a higher authority – God. (1 Kings 21)

How, Then, Shall We Live?

The Lord gives us money, resources, even wealth, for us to enjoy and give to others. We are stewards, accountable for the time, assets, and relationships, given us by God in this life. So, then, we must emulate godly models of asset allocation and thoughtful stewardship.

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. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 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)

May we all use whatever resources, gifts, abilities, and time we have to bless others and contribute to the common good of all persons.

James 4:8-17 – Make Wise Spiritual Resolutions

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Brothers and sisters do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (New International Version)

Resolve to Come Near to God

God is longingly looking out the window watching and waiting for us to come home (Luke 15:11-32). And when we are seen, God will run and come near to us.

We can come to God morning, noon, and night; when things are good and when they are bad. God gives generously to all without finding fault if we will but come near. (James 1:5)

When my oldest daughter was a small child, her bike was stolen. When she discovered it was gone, we sat down together in the backyard and came to God and prayed. I barely finished praying, we both looked up, and a police cruiser pulled up in the alley behind our house. The officer rolled down his window and said, “Hey, are you missing a bike?” 

We hopped in the back of the cruiser and the officer took us to a place where someone had ditched the bike. It was a tremendous lesson to both my daughter and I that when we come to God, God comes to us. I realize life doesn’t always work that way, yet we can be assured God listens, hears, and will respond.

Resolve to Wash Your Hands

We cannot approach God with blood on our hands. We need to come squarely facing our guilt and shame. God wants us to admit our guilt, confess it as such, receive forgiveness, and deal with matters of restitution, reconciliation, or making amends.

Look at what this very experience of godly sadness has produced in you: such enthusiasm, what a desire to clear yourselves of blame, such indignation, what fear, what purpose, such concern, what justice! (2 Corinthians 7:11, CEB)

Resolve to Purify Your Heart

Whereas the previous resolution was more external, this one addresses the inner person, the heart. Not only do our actions need to be cleaned up through washing our hands (repentance) our attitudes need cleansing, as well. 

Our hearts cannot be devoted to two masters. Double-minded persons need to become single-minded with pure, not mixed, motives.

“The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”

African Proverb

Resolve to Grieve

God blesses those people who grieve. They will find comfort! (Matthew 5:4, CEV)

Any significant change or loss creates grief. And it is necessary to grieve. Grief is not an event but a process. Everyone’s grief is intensely personal and has its own timetable. It is not crazy, selfish, or unspiritual to grieve.  In fact, it is biblical.

The only way to get on the other side of grief is by telling your story. Sharing with each other, giving testimony to God’s grace, and expressing emotion is important. There cannot be healing apart from grief and lament.

Resolve to Mourn

Mourning is the emotional response to how terrible our fallen world is and can be, and how much we really need God.  It is to see that sin in all of its foulness and degradation is horrible and destroys everything it touches.

People who do not or cannot mourn are hard-hearted. They need deep spiritual transformation. By his wounds we are healed.

Resolve to Wail

We are actually commanded to cry – more than cry – to wail.  Whereas mourning might be more private and personal, wailing is more public.

I believe one of the greatest tragedies in today’s modern church is that Christians can become so focused on victory that they end up crying alone. Nobody should ever have to cry by themselves. Weep with those who weep. If there ever was an appropriate place for crying, it should be amongst likeminded brothers and sisters.

Resolve to Change

In the face of immense human need in this world, there must be change. We cannot turn the clock back to a more bygone idyllic era. We are here, now, together on spaceship Earth. We must come to grips with the kind of change needed to live above petty human degradation.

I once had a discussion with a young woman about heaven and hell. When we first started conversing, she expressed the desire to be in the place that had the better party going on. By the time we finished talking, she was grieving, mourning, and crying. I never knew what became of her – I even forget her name now. But once she got just a glimpse of sin’s gravity, it completely undid her.

Resolve to Be Humble

Humility is the path to intimacy with God and one another. The paradox is that through grieving, mourning, and wailing we become joyful and experience God. Through suffering there is glory. Being last makes us first.  Entering through the narrow gate brings us into the broad open space of eternal life.

Resolve to Not Slander One Another

To slander means to “speak against” or “speak down” to someone. Slander always contains false information based on bogus observations and misinterpretations. To intentionally tear-down another person either to their face or to other people is slander.

People sometimes believe they have a right to speak against another person. That really says more about the slanderer than the slandered. Slander is a spirit of retaliation and revenge. It is being self-righteous and acting as the judge.

Resolve to Not Be Judgmental

A critical and condemning spirit breaks the biblical law of love and declares itself the authority. It wrongheadedly believes it knows best for everyone.

When we put our focus on others and do not deal with our own critical spirit, we play God. That is not our job. 

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
    I will pay them back,”
    says the Lord.

Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
    If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
    burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you but conquer evil by doing good (Romans 12:17-21, NLT)

Resolve to Have God in Your Plans

Some folks plan and map out their lives without a consideration of what God wants. They hold back on God, only giving partial effort and resources. And this can happen to any of us. We may not all have money and power, but we all have time, and how we use our time says a lot about our faith.

Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). In God’s economy, money is a tool to be used to meet needs and bless others. However, many persons tend to make audacious plans with money by accumulating debt and presuming they can pay it off; encouraging their kids to get high paying jobs as their highest objective; and, relying on the market economy to provide for them in the end. 

Money and making plans are good. Yet, the almighty dollar is not to be the motivating factor in our lives, and God needs to be squarely in the middle of all that we do.

So, resolve to embrace the virtue of humility – considering both others and God in making plans and decisions. For if we fail to do what we know we ought, our guilt will eventually catch up to us. Better to rely on God’s grace and make necessary changes.

Holy One, you are eternal, ever-present, and boundless in love. Yet there are times when we fail to recognize you in our daily lives. Sometimes shame clenches our hearts, and we hide our true feelings. Sometimes fear makes us small, and we miss the chance to speak from our strength. Sometimes doubt invades our hopefulness, and we degrade our own wisdom. In the daily round from sunrise to sunset, remind us again of your holy presence hovering near us and in us. Free us from shame and self-doubt. Help us to see you in the moment-by-moment possibilities to live honestly and to act courageously, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – A Spiritual Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Byzantine icon of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures….

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The Apostle James wrote to a church facing all kinds of challenging adversity in their daily lives. Some of the believers responded wisely to their troublesome circumstances. Yet others dealt with their trials and tribulations by being troublesome people themselves. 

It was this breakdown in the church fellowship which spurred James to write his letter. The surface problem was infighting. But James wanted to get down to the root issues below the surface. Like a doctor understanding the pathology of the body, James diagnosed the real problems, and gave a clear treatment plan on how to proceed together in the Christian life. 

His prescription for spiritual health in the Body of Christ was not medication but a lifestyle change. Today’s New Testament lesson answers three diagnostic questions which ailed this ancient church.

First diagnostic question:  Who is wise and understanding among you?

Wise persons live a good life, demonstrated by their humble actions. They have trained themselves in the ways of God through the Scriptures.

Wisdom in the Bible is much like driving a car. You try to keep your eyes on the road and drive defensively while often making quick decisions on the road. You don’t fret about why there is a tight curve or an upcoming stop sign. You don’t try and determine the philosophy behind the mechanics of a stop light. You just try to do what needs to be done on the road to get where you need to go. And as you drive you respond to the road conditions and pay attention to the other drivers. 

Wisdom in the Christian life is more than knowledge; it is also being attentive to the other people around us as we seek to live for God. We respond to every adverse road condition that comes along with a mind dependent on God and a humble heart willing to be directed and re-directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

The unwise person sits and harbors selfish resentment in his heart when he has to wait ten minutes on a train to slowly rumble by on the tracks. The same person then desires to take off like a bat out of hell, freely expressing his road rage at another slow driver in his way.

In his lack of wisdom, the person justifies himself as wise because he believes his destination warrants his way of driving. He has convinced himself that he must drive the way he does. And if pulled over by a police officer, he deludes himself in thinking the officer has a problem for standing in the way of him getting where he wants to go.

Conversely, wise people are characterized by a different set of motivations and practices:

  • Humility and attentive consideration of another’s need.
  • Moral purity and being set apart for Christian service.
  • Peace and harmony, championing the common good of all. 
  • Empathy and an understanding spirit that does not retreat into judgmental criticism or attacking others – putting themselves in another’s shoes and to first understand before trying to be understood. 
  • Submissive to the truth with a teachable spirit and deliberately implement necessary changes to their lives. 
  • Merciful, seeking compassion in action. 
  • Impartial, steady and consistent, with a predictable godly character. Adverse road conditions and selfish drivers do not throw them off. 
  • Sincere, genuine, and vulnerable with a willingness to face their own dark shadows and have no ulterior motives.

God cares as much about why we do what we do and how we go about it, as he does the actual action and its end result. God desires true wisdom, not false wisdom. In diagnosing false wisdom, there is jealous bitter envy and plain old selfishness. The source of the problem is the devil. And if the problem goes unchecked and no lifestyle changes are made, the body will breakdown into disorder and evil destructive behavior.

In diagnosing true wisdom, there is evidence of good deeds done from a good heart devoted to God. The source of the good actions is humility. This results in the good spiritual health of righteousness (right relationships with both God and others) and peace (harmonious relations with both God and others).

Second diagnostic question:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?

After examination, the problem comes from certain desires that act like a disease.  The presenting symptoms are verbal battles and animosities. The cause is “desire” or “pleasure” (Greek: ἡδονῶν) from which we get our English word “hedonism.” 

Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life. It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants. The cause of all the in-fighting was hedonism. Certain people wanted what they wanted, and they would do whatever it took to get it.

Hedonism twists our perspective. It skews our judgment. Hedonism calls 911 from the drive through at McDonalds when they run out of chicken nuggets (true story!). Hedonism is a cancer in the Body of Christ. It makes small things big and big things small. Hedonistic desires will do anything it takes to gain satisfaction. A passage in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice: 

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

There is an alternative to the no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism: You do not have because you do not ask God…. And even then, if still holding onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, there will be no answer because of asking with wrong motives. 

Prayer as a cloak for seeking hedonistic pleasure is nothing but spiritual adultery; it is talking to God with a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.

Third diagnostic question:  What does God want?

God wants prayer from a humble heart that seeks to engage the real enemy. Our fight is with our own pride, not with each other. If we have good and godly desires for prayer but find that we do not seek God as we ought; and come to the Scriptures discovering there is a sickness in our soul; then, the prescription is humble submission to God, resistance to evil ways, and drawing near to God.

God wants people to turn from the pride of radical independence and clandestine desires to openly and humbly seeking divine help.

The Apostle James was not trying to be a killjoy when he said to grieve, mourn, and wail; and to change your joy to gloom. He was speaking directly toward the propensity for people to slide into hedonistic attitudes and practices. He was directly accessing the Beatitudes of our Lord Jesus.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. 

In other words, true joy and happiness comes through humility. When we realize our great need for God and humbly approach as a spiritual beggar, cut to the heart over our own hedonistic pleasure-seeking, as well as all the filth existing around us, then we discover the prayer that God longs to hear.

God’s prescription for us is:

  • Learn and rely on divine promises in daily life.
  • Do the work of peacemaking and expect a harvest of righteousness.
  • Be humble and let grace and lift us up.
  • Put significant effort into resisting the devil so that he will flee from us.
  • Draw near to God; God will come near to you.

So, let us maintain our therapy appointments for developing humility. Let us admit our wrongs and ask for forgiveness. Let go of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Obey the Scriptures. Bank on God’s promises. For in doing so, we will discover the life that is truly life.

O Lamb of God, by both your example and teaching you instructed us to be meek and humble. Give us grace so that in every thought, word, and deed, we will imitate your meekness and humility. Put to death in us all pride. Keep us from falling prey to the many temptations in our path. Teach us your ways and show us how to clothe ourselves in godly humility. Thank you for your Word and help us to see the beautiful truth about humility. Do the good work of making us more and more like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Matthew 23:29-39 – Against Hypocrisy

You religious teachers are nothing but show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You build monuments for the prophets and decorate the tombs of good people. And you claim that you would not have taken part with your ancestors in killing the prophets. But you prove that you really are the relatives of the ones who killed the prophets. So, keep on doing everything they did. You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to hell?

I will send prophets and wise people and experts in the Law of Moses to you. But you will kill them or nail them to a cross or beat them in your meeting places or chase them from town to town. That’s why you will be held guilty for the murder of every good person, beginning with the good man Abel. This also includes Barachiah’s son Zechariah, the man you murdered between the temple and the altar. I can promise that you people living today will be punished for all these things!

Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn’t let me. And now your temple will be deserted. You won’t see me again until you say,

“Blessed is the one who comes
    in the name of the Lord.” (Contemporary English Version)

Christ’s scathing and damning critique is against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God.

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on the leadership who are so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people, while ignoring live people, is not good.  Respecting the prophets and pastors and godly people of the past means nothing if we ignore the prophet and pastor that is right in front of our face. 

The surest way to hell is to give credence to those long gone yet fail to honor their teaching and the people keeping the true spirit of that instruction. It is to call evil good, and good evil.

The telltale signs of hypocrisy include:

  • Not practicing what they preach, rather than embodying and modeling the message.

The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. So, all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached. Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. (Philippians 3:14-17, CEB)

  • Keeping people out instead of inviting them in.

I tell you for certain that I am the gate for the sheep. Everyone who came before me was a thief or a robber, and the sheep did not listen to any of them. I am the gate. All who come in through me will be saved. Through me they will come and go and find pasture. (John 10:7-9, CEV)

  • Focusing on externals and refusing to do one’s own inner work.

God does not see as humans see. Humans look at outward appearances, but the Lord looks into the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7, GW)

  • Majoring on the minors through upholding the letter of the law while forsaking the spirit of the law.

You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics! —you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons? (Matthew 23:23-24, MSG)

Despite the presence of hypocrisy and the misplaced energy of people, the last word to everything is God’s grace.

At the end of his tirade, Jesus did something we would do well to follow: He broke into a tear-filled, heart-rending love song for his wayward people. Today’s Gospel lesson is not just a blast-the-bad-guys message; it is a deep concern for people to know the true worship of God.

Keeping the law only truly happens when we can connect our action to a face. For example, if we follow safety protocols at work because we have to, someone will get hurt sooner than later. But if we do it with the faces of people in mind, desiring to do what is best for them, there will likely be fewer incidents.

Jesus wants people to honor God’s law so they will live well. The Lord sees faces and the stories behind those faces. He doesn’t want people damaging one another with their detached sense of moral superiority.

So, let’s be gracious, merciful, and kind – not only because we must – but because we desire to be compassionate toward our fellow humanity, as well as honor our God.

Merciful God, help us to realize when we’re being judgmental of others. Lord, I confess I am neither above you nor the master of all things. I am your servant and your child. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall. I surrender all my ways, thoughts, opinions, perceptions and decisions to you, Lord Jesus. Amen.