A Warning about Wealth (James 5:1-6)

Pay attention, you wealthy people! Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you. Your riches have rotted. Moths have destroyed your clothes. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you. It will eat your flesh like fire. Consider the treasure you have hoarded in the last days. 

Listen! Hear the cries of the wages of your field hands. These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of heavenly forces. You have lived a self-satisfying life on this earth, a life of luxury. You have stuffed your hearts in preparation for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who doesn’t oppose you. (Common English Bible)

Everyone’s station in life has its own particular temptations.

In the church for which the Apostle James wrote his letter, the rich had completely succumbed to the temptation of using their 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

It’s 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 by it. Money is temporary; but 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. People can also desire to be wealthy to the degree 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 workday. 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 person who lives completely for self is only building wealth in vain, like a hog being fattened for the slaughter. Daydreaming 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

Whenever the rich and powerful are 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)

Stewarding Wealth

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. Amen.

Luke 12:32-40 – Don’t Be Afraid to Give

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (New International Version)

The most oft repeated command in all of Holy Scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The Lord says it 365 times. It seems like we are meant to be reminded of this every day of the year.

The particular stating of the phrase by Jesus is in the context of money and possessions. Christ is telling his disciples to not fear about personal resources. Since we have a kingdom inheritance, we ought to freely give what we have to the poor without fear of being in need ourselves.

And it isn’t something we ought to procrastinate about – because the Lord could return at any time; and he doesn’t want to have to go looking for us underneath a pile of money and possessions in order to find us.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Dale Carnegie

Fear is a real thing. Fear, at its core, is being afraid of losing what we have and getting hurt. Fear can be a helpful emotion, meant to protect us and keep us safe from harm. The problem, however, is that our fears can lead us to some unhealthy behaviors such as:

  • Vilifying another, afraid that others I don’t know or who are different from me might harm me, my family, or my community.
  • Hiding my emotions, afraid my weaknesses or failures will be exposed or exploited.
  • Serving others compulsively, afraid that I won’t have worth, meaning, or purpose without helping.
  • Achieving or winning, afraid that I will be irrelevant or unwanted, if I lose.
  • Smiling and being upbeat, afraid of facing and feeling the deep sadness within me.
  • Procrastinating projects, tasks, or conversations, afraid of being disliked or rejected.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda

All of those unhealthy practices keeps us at arm’s distance from the poor and needy. Getting close to poor folk creates fear with some people, that is, being afraid they might hurt me, or afraid that they will get my money.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith tethers itself to the promises of God and frees us to be generous. And faith allows us to confidently minister and build relationships with all kinds of people, especially the poor and needy.

One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) lived in a large city full of both rich and poor. He lamented the large class difference between them. He said this about poverty and wealth:   

“To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. 

This is why God has allowed you to have more, not for you to waste on… indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need….  If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you… for you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.”

“Whenever you see anyone longing for many things, esteem him of all persons the poorest, even though he possess all manner of wealth; again, when you see one who does not wish for many things, judge him to be of all persons most affluent, even if he possess nothing. For by the condition of our mind and spirit, not by the quantity of our material wealth, should it be our custom to distinguish between poverty and affluence.”

The point that Jesus makes of selling possessions and giving to the poor is not to elevate poverty over wealth – or the poor over the rich – but rather to lift generosity as a significant mark of the Christian life.

In the same way, the watchfulness Jesus commands is not an anxious hand-wringing anticipation of the apocalypse. Instead, it is an eager expectation of God’s final act of doing away with all injustice forever.

In other words, Jesus is extoling a faith that frees us to be generous; enables us to leave fear, worry, and anxiety behind; and that creates in us confidence about how the future is all going to shake-out in the end.

The Lord’s Table is meant to remind us that God is hospitable and generous.

Communion together is meant to show us that we are not alone in faith.

And the Eucharist allows us to celebrate a future we know is coming, that as often as we eat and drink the elements of bread and cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns to judge the living and the dead.

Like the feeding of the 5,000, there is plenty of bread for all – and the cup will never run dry. That’s because the Lord we serve is a God of abundance. And when we are near to such a generous God, we feel safe and secure, and are able to freely share what we have with others – without fear and without panicking that there isn’t enough. There’s always enough because God is enough.

Generous and gracious God, You came to honor the least, the forgotten, the overlooked and the misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, and those who are misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries. Help us to be your voice speaking out love and acceptance. Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need. Help us to be your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.

Amos 8:1-12 – A Prophet’s Perspective on Power and Poverty

Miners’ wives carrying sacks of coal by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.

“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.

“Will not the land tremble for this,
    and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
    it will be stirred up and then sink
    like the river of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,

“I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
    and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
    and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it. (New International Version)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them.

The books of the prophets make it very clear that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.      

Peasants planting potatoes by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Justice is the responsibility of everyone, not just a few.

God identifies closely with the poor, the distressed, the underprivileged, and the needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern. It is a theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture.

From the Old Testament:

God will rescue the needy person who cries for help
and the oppressed person who has no one’s help.
He will have pity on the poor and needy
and will save the lives of the needy. (Psalm 73:12-13, GW)

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished. (Proverbs 17:5, NLT)

Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them. (Proverbs 19:17, CEB)

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.

Proverbs 21:13, NRSV

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who turn a blind eye will be greatly cursed. (Proverbs 28:27, CEB)

Give your food to the hungry
    and care for the homeless.
Then your light will shine
    in the dark;
your darkest hour will be
    like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:10, CEV)

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, NIV)

From the New Testament:

“If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.”

Jesus (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

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. (1 Timothy 6:17-18, NIV)

 If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. (1 John 3:17-18, GNT)

Poverty is not only an issue in some far away place; the poor are found everywhere, and they are always among us.

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world. I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Just because poverty has always been with us, doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with – including malevolence and materialism.

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice. Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?… Materialism would.

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

In short, poverty must be tackled, from a biblical perspective, on both the personal and systemic level. Individuals, families, churches, faith communities, organizations, corporations, and governments must all remove the obstacles which keep people in poverty. This is an appropriate use of power and authority.

What will you and I do?…

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums. As we seek you more and more, help us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we encounter, whether rich or poor, so that we might share the gift of life with them, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Amos 5:10-17 – Work It Out In the Public Square

People hate this kind of talk.
    Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
    Because you run roughshod over the poor
    and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
    the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I precisely know the extent of your violations,
    the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.

Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
    Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
    a waste of breath.

Seek good and not evil—
    and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    being your best friend.
Well, live like it,
    and maybe it will happen.

Hate evil and love good,
    then work it out in the public square.
Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    will notice your remnant and be gracious.

Now again, my Master’s Message, God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Go out into the streets and lament loudly!
    Fill the malls and shops with cries of doom!
Weep loudly, ‘Not me! Not us, Not now!’
    Empty offices, stores, factories, workplaces.
Enlist everyone in the general lament.
    I want to hear it loud and clear when I make my visit.”

God’s Decree. (The Message)

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world.

I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Too bad so many people are unfamiliar with this prophet and his message. This unawareness, or even purposeful ignorance, could be one reason why the ancient message of Amos appears as fresh today as it was so long ago.

Poverty has always been with us – but that doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with. Those issues include malevolence, materialism, and militarism.

Malevolence

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice.

Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?…

Materialism

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

Jesus said:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24, CEB)

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15, NRSV)

It’s bad enough when individuals, families, and corporate companies devote themselves to a bloated materialism without regard to the poor; it’s even worse when entire nations, governments, and regions do it. From their perspective, what is the most effective way for them to protect all that stuff and self-interest?

Militarism

Pouring significant amounts of money into maintaining armies to safeguard resources – and the way of life which created those resources – puts the focus off the poor and onto the interests of wealth. It also diverts money which could address problems of poverty and puts it into a massive defense budget.

Throughout the Old Testament, militarism was seen as fundamentally not trusting in God. And the prophets have a well-known term for this: idolatry.

The Lord doesn’t care about
the strength of horses
    or powerful armies.
The Lord is pleased only
with those who worship him
    and trust his love. (Psalm 147:10-11, CEV)

Make sure to not build up a war machine, amassing military horses and chariots. (Deuteronomy 17:16, MSG)

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. A standing military is a must – I’m just pointing out that we need to know precisely what we’re defending. Are we truly defending the rights of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the needy? Or are we defending someone’s exorbitant wealth?

Work It Out In the Public Square

Policies need to reflect values. Greed can and is legislated as a politic of indifference, whereas generosity can be ensconced with a politic of caring for the common good of all, not just some. This is not namby-pamby liberal drivel – it is paying attention to the biblical text.

Addressing poverty means removing the obstacles of malevolence, materialism, and militarism. And it begins with practicing lament.

The very presence of systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, healthcare disparities, economic policies which do not benefit all persons, and distorted notions of nationalism requires not only virtuous policy making, but also demands public lamentation.

Why lament? Because the Lord, the One who observes and sees all the wrong against the most vulnerable of the earth, demands that it be done.

Wherever there is injustice, we need people who will champion the cause of the needy through voicing aloud the deep grief from being squished by the powerful, as well as affirming trust in the Lord.

I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
    the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
    the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left. (Lamentations 3:19-24, MSG)

O Creator of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. The possibilities of food for bodies and souls overflow on this earth. We ask for the grace to see the abundance of our world and enough awareness to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear.

Give us openness of soul, courageous spirits, and willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.