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)

Amos 8:11-13 – Not Just Some

We all do better when we all do better.

“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.

“In that day the lovely young women and strong young men
    will faint because of thirst.
(New International Version)

Global Ears

Christians are presently in the season of Eastertide. It is a time of celebrating resurrection and new life… for all, not just some.

A Christian vision of the world is concerned with the common good of all persons, not just some. God is concerned for the entire planet, not just some of it. The Lord calls people from everywhere, all nations, every ethnicity and race of humanity, not just some.

Somewhere along the line, the people of God began hearing God’s voice, as if it were Charlie Brown’s teacher just saying, “Blah, blah… blah, blah.” Smug in their positions of power, and ever-expanding in their desire for more money and possessions, they stopped up their ears to the cries of the poor, needy, and indigent surrounding them.

Self-Centered Ears

Whenever we cease listening to others, we then construct stories in our heads about why they’re the way they are. “The poor? I’ll tell you why they are poor,” says the person with no significant interaction with anyone struggling in poverty. “Those people are lazy. They don’t like to work. They’re only looking for a free handout. Well, believe you me, they aren’t getting a thing from me! I work hard for what I have,” the satisfied person insists.

Then, with a callous disregard for who and what is right under their noses, the privileged person turns to his wife and says, “What’s for supper?” Food aplenty. Clothing galore. Fresh water with no worries. And no thought to helping fellow humanity with even the dignity of listening to the poor person’s plight.

And God will have none of it from the smug self-justifying person. There won’t be a famine of food. It will be a famine of God’s voice, God’s Word. Those who do not listen will not be listened to.

Individualist Ears

For four-hundred years there was a famine of God’s Word, the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Holy Scripture. No voice from God. No divine words for anybody, not just some.

As a human community, what one person or one group of people do, effects everyone else. Our individualism doesn’t like that. We chafe at the thought that other people’s actions influence us.

As a young couple, my wife and I rented an apartment. When I contacted the utility company, they informed me I needed to put an exorbitant amount of money down to begin electrical service in our apartment. It turns out, an older gentleman lived alone in the apartment before us. The neighbors said he always kept all the lights on, and that he had high watt bulbs in everything.

So, when the electric company gave me a figure for a down payment, it was based on the apartment’s average usage over the past year. One man’s single solitary decision about lighting impacted a struggling young couple trying to get through school with a new baby in tow.

Just because we don’t see the impact of our decisions, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

God sees them all. And he hears the cries of the poor who must fork out the precious little cash they have on things not of their own doing.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some.

Biblical Ears

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

Worshiping at the altar of capitalism or any other economic system is idolatry. Although I do not believe capitalism is inherently bad, it does have a shadow side to it which we need to see and acknowledge. Private ownership is a good thing. Yet, capitalism benefits only some, not all. We have class divisions and unequal access to goods and resources. A few control a lot. However, in the kingdom of God, all benefit, not just some.

Capitalist Ears

Capitalism is a good motivator to work. It is also the best motivator there is for greed. What’s more, people are viewed and treated more as commodities than human beings. We are not “giving units” to be exploited for our labor or our resources. We are persons. So, we need to be treated as such. Operating a sweat shop, failing to pay workers a living wage, and turning a blind eye to safety, just to make an extra buck, comes under the condemnation of Amos’ prophecy.

A capitalist approach really ends up bringing needless complexity and an exorbitant amount of goods and services, rather than a simple lifestyle which can care for people – instead of maintaining a bunch of stuff. The insatiable desire for more only causes deafness to both neighbor and God.

Common Good Ears

Our way of being together as one human family is vital. Even lovely young women and strong young men – people who have everything going for them – will be resource-less without any word from God. That is, unless we take the biblical prophets seriously. Then, perhaps we will squarely face our collective shadow side and seek the words of God so that we can love all our neighbors as ourselves, and not just some of them.

Do we have ears to hear?

Creator God of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. We ask for the grace to see the abundant resources of our world, to have enough awareness of the dark places of our hearts to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain. We intercede on behalf of every person who is hungry for earthly food and hungry for the Word of God. We pray in the name of our compassionate Savior who hears every cry, and not just some. Amen.

Amos 8:1-7 – A Prophet’s Perspective on the Powerful and the Poor

This is what the Almighty Lord showed me: a basket of ripe summer fruit.

He asked, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A basket of ripe summer fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “My people Israel are now ripe. I will no longer overlook what they have done. On that day, the songs of the temple will become loud cries,” declares the Almighty Lord. “There will be dead bodies scattered everywhere. Hush!”

Listen to this, those who trample on the needy
and ruin those who are oppressed in the world.
You say to yourselves,
“When will the New Moon Festival be over
so that we can sell more grain?
When will the day of rest—a holy day, be over
so that we can sell more wheat?
We can shrink the size of the bushel baskets,
increase the cost,
and cheat with dishonest scales.
We can buy the poor with money
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
We can sell the husks mixed in with the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn an oath by Jacob’s pride:
“I will never forget anything that they have done.” (God’s Word Translation)

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 quite plain 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.

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

Kofi Annan

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.

The bald fact of the matter is that 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…. 

Oh, my, 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.

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all.  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.