James: A Warning to the Wealthy
9/18/2018 3:44:16 AM
Sept 2, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: James 5:1-6
Imagine the world was going to end tomorrow. Or imagine that Canada was being invaded by a foreign army. What would you do? What would matter? What if a hurricane or a blizzard was coming? How would you prepare? What would you spend your money on? When an ice storm is in the forecast, or other extreme weather, people go out and buy survival packs for their home, stocking up on batteries, bottled water, blankets and such. Why?
When you know danger is coming, it changes your priorities! Your future goals shape how you use your money now. When the future suddenly become much shorter than anticipated, and more dangerous or final, it radically shifts how you spend your money! So, if an army was invading Canada, you wouldn’t care about your pension or mortgage payments. If the world was ending tomorrow, you wouldn’t worry about your investment portfolio. You wouldn’t care about how old your car was either! If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, it would change what you did today, including what you did with your money.
James gives a stern warning to carelessly wealthy people, people who have no sense of the coming judgment of God. They don’t realize that their destiny includes facing God, or that it may come significantly sooner than they wish!
This section in Chapter 5 fits with end of 4 “boasting about tomorrow.” Both passages are about having a prideful attitude about the future and are addressed to people with the wealth to make bold plans to make more money in the future. Our passage today, however, is different because this section seems to be addressing non-believers. How do we know? Chapter 4 ends with calls to repentance, whereas Chapter 5 opens with “pronouncement of doom” like Prophets of old. There is no offer of forgiveness or call to repentance. This is different from the rest of James which seems to be directed towards Christians. Let’s see what it says!
Please read with me James 5:1-6
What it Says
As I said, James is issuing a warning to wealthy, likely non-believers. Some historical insight would be helpful. First, we see James says, “Listen you rich people…” rather than “brothers.” So likely this is to non-believers. He tells them to weep and wail, or to “shriek and howl in frantic terror” – like on the day of judgment!
James goes on to describes 3 things happening to their wealth. He speaks of 3 sort of categories of wealth that were common in the ancient world, especially in the Roman Empire. Today, we also have categories of wealth. Think of “cash in the bank, investments, real estate.” We can see James’ categories more clearly by looking at how he describes what is happening to them.
The first category is crops. They are rotting. In the ancient world, with limited ways to preserve food, and certainly no refrigeration, having stores of grain meant having significant wealth!
Second is clothes. James says their garments are moth-eaten. In that culture, having expensive or even just extra clothes, was a luxury. Think back to Joseph and his fancy coat of many colours! Or Samson who offered an entire set of clothes as a prize for guessing the answer to his riddle. When Naaman came to see Elisha about a cure for leprosy, he brought with him expensive clothing as a reward or payment. But James says that the selfish wealthy people’s clothing is being destroyed by moths!
Finally, James speaks of gold and silver rusting. The third category, by James’ day, was precious metal
and coins. Now, gold and silver don’t really rust, but the word for “rust” had come to take on the meaning “decay” by this time. [Douglas Moo, James, p. 213]
James’ words are similar to Jesus’ words in Matthew, 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” This is something we will come
James says, “You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” What are the last days? As you may recall, we have this helpful diagram about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this Age. We have the two lines that overlap between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and his return. The time between Jesus’ ascension to Heaven and his return to earth is called “the last days.” It means the last days before his return and the Day of Judgment. Most New Testament writers, and most of the first Christians, expected Jesus to return in their own lifetimes. We know now that it has taken more than 2000 years, but James is an early letter and still reflects this belief.
What James is saying is basically, “If Christ is returning soon, maybe next week or next year, what good is all your money doing you?” Like our example at the beginning, if the world was ending tomorrow, what would you do today? If you knew a storm was coming, would you prepare for it? But you’ve been hoarding your wealth which is going to be of no use to use when God comes in judgment! What good will your crops and clothes be if you face God tomorrow?
Specifically, James says that these selfish, wealthy people are withholding wages from their employees, the people who come and harvest their crops. In that culture, people were paid at the end of every day. Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. They line up to get paid at the end of the day! They would then use that money to buy food on the way home for their families. If they didn’t get paid, if their boss withheld their wages, even if just for a day, the workers’ families would go hungry! They weren’t paid enough to save up money. They didn’t have a bank account or an overdraft to buy food for that day if their employer didn’t pay them immediately!
Withholding wages meant families went hungry. You can immediately see, then, the evil in the practice of holding wages back for a day or two in order to save a buck or just be stingy! Withholding wages had a direct impact on workers’ families! And the cries for justice from the workers (and their families) has reached the ears of the Lord Almighty!
Literally, “Almighty” means “of Hosts.” The Lord of Hosts has heard their cries. He is the Lord of armies, hosts of warriors who are coming to set things right, to exact justice and punishment on the corrupt, wealthy land owners and bring relief to the oppressed workers.
James says they have “fattened themselves like on the day of slaughter.” This is a reference to “fatted calves.” Families in those days, in particular wealthy families, would have a particular calf they were fattening up in preparation for a feast or celebration of some sort. This happened at the end of the parable of the Prodigal Son- the father calls for a feast and slaughters the fatted calf. James says that the wealthy have fattened themselves up like such a calf! And guess what, it’s slaughtering time- it’s the Day of Judgment coming! And what happens to fatted calves on that day? They get slaughtered and fed to the celebrants. That’s the destiny of the wealthy who have been cheating their workers.
It appears that they have also been condemning innocent men who were not opposing them. Perhaps this is a reference to using their money to corrupt the courts. Perhaps they were “bumping off” innocent men instead of paying them, or men who were voicing complaint. No matter the exact circumstance, the selfish wealth have blood on their hands.
What It Means
So what does all this mean? James is using some pretty striking images and strong words. What is he getting at? Is it wrong to be wealthy? Is he condemning owning land? What’s going on?
First, James is not condemning wealth, but the selfish use of wealth. The Bible does not condemn being rich, but it also strenuously insists in the responsibility that comes with being rich! [William Barclay, Letters of James and Peter, p. 118] Some of you have heard the quotation, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Maybe you heard it in Spiderman? The statement stretches back to the 18th century at least. That is, when put in those words, but its foundation is Biblical! In Luke 12:48, Jesus says, “Of those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” He lays the foundation that those who have been given great gifts, whether wealth or power or otherwise, then have a burden of responsibility to use what they have been given well. They have higher expectations put on them. With great wealth comes great responsibility. The selfish, wealthy James is addressing have failed in their responsibility.
Or, let me come at this another way. What is agape love? Agape love is a divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the well-being of others. In this passage, how are the rich using their wealth? On themselves! They are like fatted calves! They are being completely selfish with the great gifts of wealth they have been given. This is the opposite of self-giving! (Recall parable of vineyard- owner pays all the day labourers a full day’s wage so they can all feed their families! That was self-giving and concerned with others’ well-being. Here, in James, by contrast, the wealthy people are withholding wages for a time, causing great hardship for their employees and their families.
So that’s the situation. But why is James speaking to non-Christians? Are they likely to read his letter? No. James knows his audience is Christian. So why is he addressing non-believers in his letter to believers?
John Calvin points out that James has 2 Points for his Christian readers:
First: Do not envy the rich.
-They look like they are winning now. It’s easy to envy their comfort! Their power!
-Most of the Christians were poor, often day labourers like those depicted
-the rich have a nasty end in store for them!
Second: God has heard your cry.
-many Christians were being oppressed. Not necessarily religiously, but because of poverty. God has heard your cries for justice!
-Lord of Hosts will make it right
-Question of theodicy- why does a loving, all powerful God allow suffering? He only allows it for a time- ultimately he will set things right!
OT Theme: God is on the side of the poor!
Further meaning here:What is the ultimate destiny of all people? Judgment!
-the wealthy are using their resources to have a good time NOW. But James is reminding them that the Lord is going to judge them soon. What use will their money be on the day of Judgment?
-John Calvin points out about this passage that God did not appoint our wealth to sit wasting away, rotting, being eaten by moths, rusting. Rather, he appointed our wealth to be put to use helping our fellow man!
Our wealth is not to be left to decay, but to help our fellow man!
-Parable of the rich fool-stores up his wealth for himself, but his life will be demanded of him that night. Instead, he should have used his wealth to help others, bless others and thereby store up treasures in heaven!
Remember this picture? (of the overlapping ages, the Kingdom of God/Age to Come and the Kingdom of the World/Present Age of Sin) If we are in the “last days” and our existence will continue after the return of Christ, if we will face judgment, then isn’t the smart thing to use our money now in a way that matters then? Use our wealth on this side of the purple line in a way that matters on the other side?
-Jesus spoke of “laying up treasures in Heaven.” Actually, a Jewish idea that was around at the time. How do I store up treasures in Heaven? Give to the poor!
One of King Herod’s sons, on his deathbed, was asked by his counselors, “What are you doing with your estate? With your great wealth?”
“I’m taking it with me!” “No, no, you can’t take it with you.” “Yes, yes I am! I’m taking it with me! I’ve stored up treasure in Heaven!”
His counselors realized he had willed all of his wealth to the poor so he could “lay up treasure in heaven.” They had to scramble to undo his will before he died or else his family (and potentially the kingdom) would be bankrupted! Now, this son of Herod did it selfishly, only doing it on his deathbed and with selfish motives. Also, he was assuming heaven was his destiny! But a prevailing thought at the time was that one could store up treasure in heaven by giving to the poor. We can lay up treasure in Heaven by helping the poor, the economically marginalized.
In fact, James has already said in his letter that true religion consists of three things: tame the tongue, help widows and orphans “economically marginalized” and do not be polluted by the sin of this world.
So what are we to do with all this? How do we apply this?
We’ve been working through all of James and so far we have seen several facets of pride, in particular the
pride that comes with wealth. First, there was the pride that maligns or judges brothers and sisters in Christ (4:11-12).
-2nd was the pride we saw last time about making plans as if we were in control of the future. Now, our third facet of pride is oppression of the poor and indulgence of the self.
First, I don’t want us to think that “The wealthy” are people “other than us.” We have a few people in our church on disability payments or EI. To those of you in that situation, I would say you are not wealthy. However, the rest of us- we are wealthy! We may not be the richest people in Canada, but we are some of the wealthiest people in the world. (The fact that we have disability and EI means even our poor are wealthy by global standards!)
2011 part of Priory’s trip to Kenya
-Pastor Mati was given a house!
-stone walls, dirt floor, minimal electricity, doubtful it had running water. No stove, just a chimney with a fireplace to cook food
Certainly no drywall, insulation or paint!
Over 100 people came from miles around to celebrate and have a house dedication!
-Mati and his family were so excited! His daughters sang “Count your Blessings”
Any one of us living in such a primitive house here in Canada would be ashamed. We would have children’s services called – no heat! No running water, etc!
But in Kenya, this was a wealthy house!
In Canada- we are wealthy!
With our wealth comes responsibility.
-Are you saving for retirement? Having money put aside into CPP? RRSP?
That money is for the time period between when you stop working and when you die
-What are you doing about the time period after you die? Are you investing in such a way that will pay dividends then?
-Give to the poor. Support your local church, invest in the Kingdom of God by giving to the church, to missionaries, and to other ministries
Sometimes we think, “I don’t have enough left over to give to the church” or “I will give to the church when I have more.”
But how much more? How much is enough for you?
-John D Rockerfeller, at the time one of the richest men in the world, was asked, “How much money is enough?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.”
-Don’t think you will ever have “enough” money! Invest now. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be- your thoughts, feelings, will, desires and imagination!
In Canada, we are the recipients of tremendous generosity.
-God has been generous to us, even those of us who do not believe in Him!
As we think about the wealth we have at our disposal, as we compare it to other nations, like Kenya or developing countries, we may fall into despair or guilt about how much we have. But!!!
The appropriate response to generosity is not guilt but gratitude.
-with a heart of gratitude, consider the generosity you have been shown and respond in kind
We live in a culture in which amassing great wealth is not only condoned, but admired! As Christians, we need to come to grips with this point in James and ask ourselves, “How much is enough?”
-To not be polluted by our world, our culture, means being satisfied with what we have, not always looking for more. And to be generous with what we have. It means looking out for the little guy, people who have less than us. This is storing up treasure in heaven!
Invest in the Kingdom of God. It pays eternal dividends.
-IT’s not just about “doing the right thing” – it’s about using our money now with an eye to the future- our eternal future! Past our death to the Day of Judgment and beyond
To fail to do so, to merely use your wealth for your own comfort is to be like the rich in James who themselves become the fatted calf! A warning for us all. Amen.
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