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 1:9-16 – The Rich, the Poor, and God

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wildflower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. (New International Version)

The social milieu of the New Testament world was a society firmly stratified between the rich and the poor.  There were very few opportunities for uplift with the lower class. There were no laws protecting the rights of workers and the disadvantaged, and the rich often used and abused their power over them.

However, the Apostle James had a different angle, a divine perspective, on the situation.

The poor person is rich

The lowly poor person actually has a high position because their poverty enables an openness to God and leads them to rely on God’s enablement and provision.

Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; struggle to keep food on the table; and find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God. In this state of humility, the believer cries to God. Trust becomes necessary for survival.

God cares about our poverty of spirit – our humble and contrite hearts. A person can be poor, but, at the same time, spiritually advantaged. We are loved by God neither because of wealth nor poverty; we are loved because that’s what God does.

It is possible to be poor, and not humble. Conversely, it is possible to be rich and trust God. Chronically complaining of a lack of funds and always desiring more money – or trying to act like we are not poor (or the rich trying to act poor) – will not get an exalted status with God.

The choice is: Will we pour our lives into things, or people? Will we define success as worldly wealth, or as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

It is quite possible to have very little, but to be rich in faith and relationships. 

The rich person is poor

Wealth is not bad, per se. There are plenty of godly and wealthy persons in Scripture, like Abraham and Job. The problem is people who rely on what they own rather than on God. (Luke 12:13-21) 

Anyone who trusts in things is the true underprivileged person. The lack of faith and humility makes them like a sirocco wind – a hot and humid southeast to southwest wind originating as hot, dry desert-air over North Africa, and blowing northward into the southern Mediterranean basin. 

The original readers knew all about these winds that could unpredictably come through their area and wither perfectly good and apparently strong plants.

The rich person who trusts in wealth is like that plant. It grows up, flourishes, and is beautiful. Yet, the next day, it is completely gone – annihilated by the hot wind. Like a cornfield in a massive hailstorm, or a flower in a severely hot sirocco wind, you can count on the biblical reality that the rich cannot stand in the judgment, if they are looking to wealth for power, control, attention, and status. 

Even though it might seem the rich person is exalted, and the poor person is in a low position, in the end, the rich will suffer, and the poor will be vindicated. Faith determines success – not money. (Luke 16:19-21)

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord made them both.

Proverbs 22:2, CEB

Blessed is the person who perseveres under a time of trial and testing of faith. God is pleased when we learn to endure hardship and let it mature us into better people. For such people, God promises to give the crown of life.  God sees your hardship and promises life. This hope helps sustain us over those times when we might wonder if the trial will ever end.

Sometimes, however, we face suffering not because of the circumstances which God brings in our lives, but because of our own unwise response to difficulty. We compound our problems by blaming our troubles on others and refusing to face-up to what God is trying to teach us. 

Our bruised hearts can send us desperately looking for someone to point the finger when we are confronted with our own trouble – even God.

“There are two eras in American history: the passing of the buffalo and the passing of the buck.”

Will Rogers

We are sometimes so desperate to justify ourselves that we make illogical and irrational statements, such as: 

  • “I would not worry about the future if I had just a little more money, and no health problems.”
  • “If you knew what I’ve been through, you would know that I could never forgive that person [or God].”
  • “I’ll never be happy as long as _______ is in my life.”
  • “I would be more generous if God gave me more money.”

So, what will it take to stop making excuses, blaming others, and start pleasing God instead of everyone else? What will it take to face down the difficult stuff you don’t like in your life?

Don’t blame God

God cannot be tempted. God hates injustice. It is a moral impossibility for God to even consider attempting to do evil because of perfect holiness. Since God cannot be tempted by evil, God therefore cannot tempt people toward evil.

We blame others because it is a cheap, easy, and pathetic way of absolving ourselves from responsibility, unwise choices, words, and actions. There are only two ways of living with guilt: either we humble ourselves through confession and repentance; or we blame it on someone else.

God tests our faith to improve our character and bring us toward greater spiritual maturity. God does not force us to make bad, immoral, or evil choices because of hard circumstances. God may have very well brought the trial and testing into our lives; but how we respond to it, is up to us.

The source of temptation is us

The real culprit behind temptation is one’s own personal desire or lust for something. It is our own strong intense have-to-do-it, have-to-say-it, and have-to-have-it mentality which is at the root of temptation. 

We all have legitimate needs and desires for love, security, companionship, and to make a difference in the world. Yet we can often seek illegitimate means to satisfy those needs. Temptation lures us to satisfy our legitimate needs in illegitimate ways, and then hooks us like a fish. 

The result of giving-in to temptation is ultimately death

The Apostle James used the familiar language of childbirth to convey the consequences of sinful desires. Temptation, like a smooth operator, comes along and gives us a slick pitch about how our troubles can be taken care of through blaming others, even God.

Then, all of sudden, like a lost and lonely person desiring to be satisfied, we entertain the idea and go to bed with the idea. We sin. Now it is within us. Like a fetus, the small sin grows inside us. Eventually, this pregnancy must end. But instead of giving birth to life, there is the agony of death.

If the result of the person who perseveres under trial and endures the testing of faith is being with and enjoying God forever, so the result of the person who chooses to fulfill evil desires through succumbing to temptation is separation from God – it is death.

Conclusion

Every one of us struggles in some way with temptation. We don’t all wrestle with the same demons, but we all are tempted in some manner. The cycle of guilt and separation from God can be broken through humility and submission to Christ. The good news is that the power of sin can be broken.

Don’t let anyone fool you by using senseless arguments [blame-shifting]. These arguments may sound wise, but they are only human teachings. They come from the powers of this world and not from Christ. God lives fully in Christ. And you are fully grown because you belong to Christ, who is over every power and authority. Christ has also taken away your selfish desires, just as circumcision removes flesh from the body. And when you were baptized, it was the same as being buried with Christ.  Then you were raised to life because you had faith in the power of God, who raised Christ from death. You were dead because you were sinful and were not God’s people. But God let Christ make you alive when he forgave all our sins. (Colossians 2:8-12, CEV)

Matthew 19:16-22 – An Intervention by Jesus

Armenian Orthodox depiction of Jesus and the rich young man.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (NIV)

Sin is addictive. Since we are all sinners, we are therefore all addicts. We do not all struggle with the same sin but we all have some besetting sin(s) we must be weaned off of, whether it is what we typically think of as addiction (alcohol, substance abuse, smoking, pornography, gambling) or things we don’t readily notice as addictive (gossip, food, shopping, social media, Netflix). The most pervasive and addictive sin found in Holy Scripture is the addiction to wealth and money.

It would be easy to think of others rather than we ourselves when it comes to the topic of money. “I don’t have as much money as…” or, “So and so really has a problem with this…” perhaps betrays our own denial of having an inordinate concern with wealth. The truth be told, it is likely that all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, and stuff. Even people who truly have little money and few resources can compulsively think about wealth and wish for riches to an unhealthy degree, as if possessing more is the thing that will make them happy.

Persons in denial rarely realize how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God. In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. The great preacher from antiquity, St. John Chrysostom, plainly declared:

“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”

Sometimes, because of denial, people need an intervention – to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift.  Someone cares enough to intervene. Yet, interventions do not always work. The person may walk away and refuse to see themselves as they are.

Jesus performed an intervention with a rich young man (literally, a twenty-something). The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he failed to see it. In fact, he thought of himself as godly and spiritual. It is a sad story because the man walked away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not follow him.

Because of his riches, the young man did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change, and so, held to his denial.

Today’s Gospel lesson is not merely an ancient story. It is our story, as well. Whereas I would get all excited about being asked a question like, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” and launch into proclaiming the good news, Jesus, however, immediately picked up on the attitude and thought behind the question. 

What must I do to get?  It is almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth.  “I am a successful businessman, and respected citizen,” the young man might have reasoned, “and now I want to be a success with God, as well.” However sincere the question may have been, it is misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile twenty-something to acquire and possess. It seems he believed he could purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God.

Jesus questioned the question by going after the underlying assumption that the man could do something good to obtain eternal life. He could not because only God is good. So, Jesus changed the action from getting to entering; and changed the language from a market acquisition to entering a journey. In short, Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to leverage obtaining what I want.

We must be careful to avoid the topic of eternal life as if it were a contractual arrangement, as if getting a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula will seal the deal. Because life with God is a walk of obedience to divine commands.

The rich guy wanted to know which commands to obey. Jesus then quoted the second table of the Ten Commandments, the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to see that the entrance to God’s kingdom goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Simple straightforward observance of commands has its limits; it cannot provide genuine life. The rich man seemed to be looking for some extraordinary command. After all, he could do it, no matter what the price was.  The man, in his materialistic worldview, was confused. “What resources could I possibly lack?” he wondered.  So, Jesus straight up told him: Sell everything. Give to the poor. Then, come, follow me.

The young twenty-something needed to shift how he thought about being godly. Jesus is a person, not a commodity one can simply add to a portfolio.

Jesus mercifully offered the man a new way of being, not doing.

Through the conversational back and forth, Jesus exposed the rich man’s divided loyalties of trying to serve both God and money. He would have to choose between the two. And, I will add, this is our choice, as well. The issue is not whether we are completely devoted to money, or not. The question is: Are we trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world? 

God wants an undivided heart with complete allegiance. Jesus is scouting for the poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and do not sugar-coat their spiritual state.

Like an alcoholic who needs sobriety, or a sex addict who needs purity, or a workaholic who needs to stop and go home, the rich young man needed to give up his inordinate love for money and possessions. So, Jesus did an intervention. Keep in mind that Jesus did not ask every rich person to do exactly as he called this young man to do, i.e. Zacchaeus to give everything away, or for Peter to sell his fishing business.

We must face our own compulsions, obsessions, and addictions surrounding money and wealth. Perhaps the best way to grow our faith is to tell a trusted person that you compulsively work in order to feel better, or that you are afraid to give because you worry about the future, or that you love to buy things you don’t really need.

I also want to do a check-in with you right now. With your self-awareness regarding money and stuff, do you feel horrible about yourself?  Do you beat yourself up for screwing up and succumbing to the money master? Grace is the final word on everything. God has unlimited patience with us and never tires of inviting us to follow him. Praise the Lord that divine love and acceptance is not based on our screw-ups but on the cross of Christ.

Camels cannot pass through the eye of a needle through dieting, concentrating harder, or getting lucky. Yet, it can happen, not because the camel can squeeze through the narrowness of the needle’s eye but because there is a wideness in God’s mercy.

Grace will pull you through. And unlike the rich young man, once you hear and understand that piece of delightful news, you do not walk away sad. You bound away with eternal joy.

O Lord, giver of life and source of freedom, I know that all I have received is from your hand. You call us to be stewards of your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us. Help us to always use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously. May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ in our lives. Amen.

James 2:8-13 – On Mercy and Against Favoritism

“Benevolent Mercy” by Iowa artist William Butler

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)

One of my bedrock foundational unshakable beliefs is that God’s big world spins on the axis of grace. Without grace we would all be living in some nightmarish dystopian novel just trying to survive. Grace is the force which overwhelms and overcomes everything. 

When I was growing up, we had a dog named Sam. Sam loved being on the farm. More than once he tussled with a skunk. In those times, I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. God is going to clean us up when smelling the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice. Favoring the rich over the poor stinks because God cares about those trapped in poverty. When Jesus began his ministry, he lifted-up the importance of poor folk by placing himself in the position of extending grace to them:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18, NIV)

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was a pervasive reality (and still is!). The various reasons for poverty range from being born into poverty, being lazy, or being oppressed and/or in slavery. The types of poor persons run the gamut from simple beggars to the pious and humble poor.  These spiritual poor persons were called in biblical times the anawim” (Hebrew עֲנָוִ֣ים). The anawim are humble and gentle folk caught in grinding poverty with no other option but to put their trust in God.

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the needs of the poor are a chief reason why Holy Scripture is filled with references about how to treat them. The anawim are dear and near to the heart of God:

“Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

“If you hire poor people to work for you, don’t hold back their pay whether they are Israelites or foreigners who live in your town. Pay them their wages at the end of each day because they live in poverty and need the money to survive. If you do not pay them on time, they will complain about you to the Lord, and he will punish you.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEV)

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done!” (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Unknown Dutch artist, 1580.

Nothing gets God’s hackles up more than unjust and unfair favoritism which is devoid of mercy and grace toward the poor. It all stinks to high heaven, and when God smells it, divine egalitarian power is not far behind.

It is the poor in spirit with no trust in stuff and ingenuity who will enter the kingdom of heaven. The humble person gives grace to another even though the person cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who have a deal with you about scratching each other’s backs. However, it is altogether a different thing to be gracious simply because it is the right thing to do and pleases the heart of God. 

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. Inattention to the poor and needy only betrays a heart of unjust favoritism – a materialistic heart full of greed. A 2012 Boston Globe article asked the following question: Does money change you?

The Globe article stated, “most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money … wouldn’t change who they are as people. Yet, a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you would behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you are probably wrong: These are not just inherited traits but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.”

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found in their research that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to view some groups of people as inferior to others.  Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds. Their research concluded, “If you win the lottery and you want to avoid becoming an insensitive jerk, there is a simple solution: Give at least half the money away.” 

Some poor people, as in the days of the Apostle James, are willing to put up with being treated unfairly so they might get a piece of the rich person’s pie. Favoritism ignores the sin in others to gain something from them. God says that is stinking thinking.

Favoritism is flat out a violation of God’s law. The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God and love neighbor. Favoritism violates our neighbor, and therefore, is sinful disobedience of God. Any needy human we encounter is our neighbor – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, or anything that identifies them as different. They are to be helped when we can do so.

We are to speak and act with mercy because we will eventually have to face the Judge. God is always watching us – every word and every action. Judge Jesus will respond to how we have treated each person we encountered and how we talked about other people when they were not around. We will all appear before Christ at the end of the age and must give an account of ourselves. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Words are important, so they ought to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. Showing mercy instead of favoritism is the way love expresses itself.  Mercy is best given when we have first received it ourselves from God. A heart touched by the grace of the Lord Jesus is one which will stand in the judgment.

We rid ourselves of favoritism’s stench through the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  There is grace available if we will receive it. God is the expert in transforming lives, renewing minds, and putting to death the pride of favoritism. The work is done with needed grace and compassionate mercy.

So, we are to make it our goal to be a grace-givers, to have willing hearts which seek to emulate the mercy of Christ. The bath of mercy and grace takes away the stank of prideful favoritism and leaves us with the sweet aroma of love, justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

May it be so to the glory of God.