The Dangers of Wealth James 5:1-6


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James 5:1-6

As we have already had occasion to notice a number of times, James addresses themes that are prominent in OT wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs, but also in Ecclesiastes and in several of the Psalms that are clearly part of that library of wisdom literature. The most noticeably absent theme in James is that of sexual purity, a major theme in Proverbs but which makes no appearance in James. But quarreling, unkind speech, partiality, and so on are frequent themes in Proverbs and appear prominently in James as well. So does money, the love of it, the corrupting influence of it, and the attitude toward it that wise people ought to have and that foolish people always have. So it is no surprise that James takes us that subject, as he does in this next paragraph.

Text Comment

v.1       Neither here, as will become clear, nor anywhere else in the Bible are the rich condemned for being rich. Wealth can be of great benefit to the church. This morning we noticed that Mary’s home was spacious, sufficient to hold a congregation of Christians at prayer. She must have been well-to-do. Most Christian homes would not have been that large. You remember that the Lord Jesus was supported by the gifts of men and women who were better off than others. Some prominent biblical heroes, men of faith and examples of godliness, were wealthy men. Think of Abraham, David, and Job, who were, by the standards of their day very wealthy men. The problem with wealth is that it poses powerful temptations, temptations that comparatively few wealthy people successfully resist: 1) a false sense of security apart from God, 2) an insatiable love of power, and, 3) delight in excessive luxury and self-indulgence, all of which conditions, as we know, corrupt the soul. [Tasker, 109, 114] Or as another commentator puts it, the sin of the rich is not wealth per se, but the way in which wealth is acquired, the way it is used, and the spirit it engenders in the heart. [In Motyer, 169] Again, James is building on the teaching of Jesus, which he does more than any other author in the New Testament. He too sometimes spoke as if every wealthy person had gone astray in these ways. “Woe to you who are rich,” he said, “for you have received your consolation.” [Luke 6:24] That is, you’ve received all the consolation you are ever going to get. He also famously said, it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. He didn’t hurry on to say that, of course, there were godly rich people and what he had just said did not apply to them. That sort of generalization is typical of the Bible’s style. The Bible, being a book written by Semites, citizens of a particular culture, shares a common feature of the Semitic mind, what one scholar calls “absoluteness – a tendency to think in extremes without qualification, in black and white without intervening shades of gray.” [Caird, Language and Imagery, 110 (121)]

v.2       Clothing was a primary form of wealth in the ancient world and so is often linked with silver or gold. We would not think of it or use it so but clothing could be used as a form of payment and was often given as gifts or handed down as an inheritance. Here the idea is that whatever these people supposed themselves to have gained will come to nothing.

v.3       Surely we’re harking back here to the Lord’s comment about not laying up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy. [Matt. 6:19] These people are hoarding their wealth rather than putting it to good use. [Motyer, 165]

v.4       As you remember, the Law of Moses expressly forbad farmers from withholding the wages of their hired workers. In those days most wealthy people would have been landowners and most workers would have been paid in coin, with which they could then purchase food that was needed for themselves and their families. As Yahweh warned Israelite landowners, the poor may seem to have few friends and no one to stand up for them, who is going to care if you hold their wages overnight or until the next week?but their cry goes up to God and he will see to it that justice is meted out to those who abuse their power.

The phrase, “the ears of the Lord of hosts” comes straight from Isaiah 5:9, part of a denunciation of the wicked rich. When the Lord came to his vineyard he looked for righteousness but heard instead an outcry from the poor folk who were being oppressed by wealthy landowners. The fact that he is the Lord of hosts reminds us that he is able to meet all our needs without our having to resort to ungodly behavior and that he is able to bring anyone into judgment who flaunts his will.

v.5       Now James turns to the self-indulgence that wealth makes possible and all too predictable. They live a life without self-denial [Motyer, 167], which John Calvin said was the bottom principle of the Christian life. But in doing so they forget the ultimate issue of life. Remember what the Lord said to the rich man in his parable in Luke 16: “In your life you enjoyed good things…” but now the rich man is in hell and all of that pleasure is forgotten, while Lazarus who suffered want and oppression during his life in this world is now utterly and forever free and happy in heaven.

But what is the sense of “He does not resist you”? It seems best to regard James as saying that the righteous man, like the Lord Jesus himself, does not resist the mistreatment of others, and in not resisting demonstrates that there are higher, purer motives than merely the hope of gain and that the Christian’s calling is to demonstrate those higher motives by refusing to fight back against the oppression of the wealthy. [e.g Motyer, 169; vs. Moo, 219-220]

I thought I would begin tonight’s sermon with a rapid survey of the Bible’s wisdom on the subject of money. I count something in the neighborhood of thirty verses or sets of verses devoted to the subject of money in the book of Proverbs. And taking them together, one finds a rich and multi-sided perspective on money. For example:

  • The Bible knows and shows no hesitation in admitting that you have to have money to live. There is no virtue in being poor. It makes for a harder life.
  1. “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.” 14:20 (This is one of those proverbs – of which there are a good many – that describes the world as it is, not as it ought to be. Scholars refer to them as phenomenological proverbs rather than didactic proverbs.)
  2. “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” 22:7
  3. “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it,” which is to say that wealth is often God’s gift to his people. Why would God give such a gift except that it brings blessing to his people? 10:22

The Bible is wonderfully earthy in its acknowledgement that it is better to have money than to live without it. As Agur put it in Proverbs 30, having money is a defense against the temptation to steal. Money contributes to the enjoyment of life. One lives in a more comfortable home, eats tastier food, travels in greater comfort, wears nicer clothes, and, as Prov. 13:22 reminds us, one can provide more for one’s children. This is all summed up in Prov. 10:15: “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”

  • But Proverbs also knows the limitations of money.
  1. It cannot satisfy spiritual needs which are far more important than physical needs. This point is made in the “better than” proverbs. “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.” 16:8 “A poor man is better than a liar.” 19:22 “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.” 28:6
  2. Wealth is fleeting and you can’t take it with you. “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.” 23:5
  3. The more money one has, the more vulnerable he or she becomes. For example poor people never have to worry about kidnappers! “The ransom of a man’s life is his wealth, but a poor man hears no threat.” 13:8 And the more one has the more likely that he or she will be surrounded by superficial friends. “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.” 14:20

I was at Dave Weyerhaeuser’s funeral years ago, and Tim Skrivan and I were standing in the back before the service talking to the director of Dave’s family foundation, the Stewardship Foundation. He was looking over the full company that were gathered for the funeral, and he said, “You know, most of these people are here because they want something from the foundation.” And Tim said, “No, these people are here because they admired Dave Weyerhaeuser, they admired the integrity of his life, they admired his spirit of generosity.” And just at that moment a fellow came up, addressed the man we were standing with, and said, “At the end of the service I’d like to see you. I’ve got a suggestion to make for you, an idea that I think the Foundation may want to support.” The rich have superficial friends.

  • Proverbs is also well aware of the temptations posed by money or the desire for it, because the desire for money can be as tempting as the actual possession of it.

We remember Paul’s dictum that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” but it is Proverbs that tells us how that is so.

  1. It perverts love and justice. “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household.” 15:27 Grasping people make poor spouses and parents among other things.
  2. But most significantly, it tends to create a sense of security apart from God. This is, I think, the chief attraction of money to unbelievers, even though they will never have put it to themselves in that way. So Agur prays (30:8-9): “Give me neither poverty nor richesa prayer that Christiana says in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress is scarcely prayed by one in ten thousandlest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” This is the chief reason why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle. Rich people don’t they need God.
  • Proverbs knows that there are very different ways of obtaining money and how one gains wealth makes all the difference.
  1. Making money must not be the goal of one’s life, as if wealth in and of itself is a worthy end. “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.” 22:16 (You see, giving gifts to the rich is a way to ingratiate oneself with people whose influence can be of benefit.)
  2. Rather, wealth should be received as God’s blessing. “The blessing of the Lord makes rich…” 10:22. The only safe way to get rich is to work hard and serve others and enjoy God’s blessing on your labors and your character. Otherwise, those who are “greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.” 1:19
  3. Wealth should be the reward of the diligent not the lazy. Remember Proverbs’ famous contrast between the ant and the sluggard. “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.” 6:10-11 On the contrary, “A slack hand causes poverty but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” 10:4 By the way, the causes of poverty in the Bible are tyranny, laziness, or the judgment of God. It is never caused by a world that is insufficient to meet everyone’s needs. We need to remember that sometimes when listening to doom-sayers among our politicians and environmental activists.
  4. Wealth ought never to be acquired by miserliness but by liberality. Stinginess is contrary to the heart of God. “Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers it for him who is generous to the poor.” 28:8
  5. Wealth ought to be acquired not by indulging appetites but by curbing them. “Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.” 21:17 “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty and slumber will clothe them with rags.” 23:20-21 [Much of the above material from Bruce Waltke’s Regent College lectures on Proverbs.]

As you can readily appreciate, the view of money that we find in Proverbs is what we find throughout the Bible: from the Lord’s “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things – food, clothing, shelter – will be added to you” to Paul’s “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”; from the Lord’s parable of the man who planned to build bigger barns to amass still greater wealth but failed to the reckon with the fact that the length of his life was in the Lord’s hands to Paul’s reminder that the Lord loves a cheerful giver; from the Lord’s admonition to lay up our treasures in heaven not on earth, to the example of the early church that was exceedingly generous to the poor and invested lavishly in the progress of the gospel; from the Lord’s admonition to use our money to gain friends for ourselves, friends who will welcome us “into the eternal dwellings,” to the rich man’s failure to befriend Lazarus, the beggar at his door only to find himself in hell and Lazarus in heaven; from the compliments Paul pays to the generous churches who supported his work and the poor in Jerusalem, to the terrible and sudden judgment of Ananias and Sapphira; from “for we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it,” (1 Tim. 6:7) to “You cannot serve both God and money” and “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

It is an interesting fact that Holy Scripture says there are two things worth buying at any price, truth (Prov. 23:23) and time (Eph. 5:16), neither of which can be bought with money! This is wisdom, of course, so the whole world knows it at a certain level. If we put the question this way who will fail to choose the obvious answer, at least in public?

“Who do you imagine has the deepest satisfaction and the greatest joy in life? The man who pays for an expensive suite at a swank hotel and spends his evening trying to impress strange women with expensive cocktails in a half-lit lounge or the man in the room at Motel 6 who spends his evening watching the sunset while writing a love-letter to his wife?” [Cf. J. Piper, Desiring God, 157]

We all say money can’t buy happiness, but we are all sorely tempted to live and think as if it can. Face facts; the Washington State Lottery survives and thrives precisely because so many people are sure that money can buy happiness, so sure they are willing to surrender what money they have for the infinitesimally small chance of striking it rich.

Now, in a way entirely typical of wisdom literature, James takes up here but one dimension of this large issue of our view of money. It has been argued that James could not be addressing Christians here because real Christians would not act this way. But experience proves the contrary to be so. It is not difficult to find Christians whose heads have been turned by wealth and who seem oblivious to the way in which the love of money has seduced them. But, of course, there is much of this same teaching in Proverbs and also in the OT prophets, who are full of denunciations of the rich, their mistreatment of the poor and their indulgence in luxury, denunciations addressed to the people of God! That teaching was preserved for the faithful in the Bible precisely as a warning, to make us who revere the Word of God wary of money and its temptations.

The argument that James gives us here, as we think it through, is a theological argument. The reason the rich have cause to weep and howl, the reason their wealth has rusted and their garments are moth-eaten, at the moment their garments are not moth-eaten and their wealth has not rustedis because the comfort, the power, the status, the pleasure that wealth bestows on a person in this world is temporary. No one can doubt that the advantages of wealth are real. Being rich, even being well-to-do, even being comfortable like all of us are to one degree or another, changes a person’s life in many ways and in ways that almost anyone would think were for the better. Imagine never having to worry about paying your bills, or buying what you need or, even, what you would like to have. I heard recently someone say that most of what the average American evangelical prays for could be supplied by a moderately rich person. I hope that isn’t true, but I fear it might be. Money makes life much easier and more pleasant in many ways. You know and I know this, because we find ourselves thinking about such things, what happy use we would make of more money if we had it.

But all of that pales in significance, indeed begins to look like a positive hindrance when we reckon with reality, and in particular this reality: life is short, eternity is very long and money is no help, none whatsoever, in getting to heaven. In fact, it increases the danger that one will not safely arrive in the city of God when our days in this world come to their end, as they must and sooner than we think. What is the good of hoarding wealth if not only does it not help us get to heaven but actually offends the one who alone can take us there? What good is gaining a few more dollars by paying our laborers late if God is offended by our doing so? What is the use of living in luxury if, in the final analysis, all it is going to do is increase our bitterness and our sense of loss when it is all taken away, as soon it must be. The reality looming over a monetized view of life is the great reversal of fortune that awaits those who trust in present wealth instead of investing for the future in the kingdom of God. If there is no such reversal, then by all means eat, drink, and be merry with your money, for tomorrow you die. Try your best to avoid thinking about the onrushing end of your life. Use your money to distract you from the harsh reality of mortality.

But, if there is such a reversal – and the entire Christian religion is both the proclamation and the demonstration of that reversal – then a person who makes money his or her idol in this world is committing a grotesque and fatal mistake. He or she is, in the language of biblical wisdom, the quintessential fool.

And if such a reversal awaits, then the nature, the purpose, and the value of money are profoundly transformed. Money becomes more valuable as an instrument of serving God and others than as a means of ensuring pleasure and comfort for ourselves. Money becomes God’s gift and blessing of which we are duty-bound to be careful stewards. I heard a Christian financial consultant say recently that one of the problems with American Christians is that they have been allowed to think that God owns 10% of their stuff, when in fact the whole Bible teaches he owns 100% of our stuff and not only are we to be faithful stewards of his stuff, but we face an audit at the end of the day, when every dime and nickel and penny will have to be accounted for – how it was used, on what it was spent. If we really believe that, the accumulation of money, obviously, can never be for the Christian an end in itself; can never be for the purpose of rendering our lives more comfortable and full of pleasure; but must be simply a happy effect of a life lived in faithfulness to the Lord and his kingdom. If God chooses to give us greater amounts of money – and, indeed, in whatever measure he gives us wealth – we are to regard it as a further means by which to honor and serve him, the gospel, and our neighbor in need. The fact is, through thousands of years, wealthy Christians with a clear eye to these realities, have paid the lion’s share of the bill for everything from missionary work overseas, to establishing Christian ministries and institutions at home.

Let me illustrate the difference that a Christian perspective, the perspective of faith, an eternal perspective makes when thinking about money and wealth. Some of you, perhaps, have visited the Queen Mary, one of the last of the great trans-Atlantic ocean liners, before air travel replaced travel by ship. She is now a hotel and museum in Long Beach, CA. For three years after her maiden voyage, the Queen Mary was the grandest ocean liner in the world carrying Hollywood celebrities like Bob Hope and Clark Gable, royalty like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dignitaries like Winston Churchill across the pond. During this time she even set a new speed record between Britain and New York, a record she held for 14 years. Her passenger spaces were typically arranged in three classes and, interestingly, the largest class was first class, or cabin class, as it was called. In her spaces reserved for the wealthier passengers, she was luxurious beyond measure by the standards of the 1930s. For her paneling in both public rooms and staterooms, various woods from all over the British Empire were used. Her indoor pool took up the space of two decks. The ceiling of her huge first class dining room or grand salon was three stories above the floor and, of course, the tables were laid with fine china, crystal glasses, and sterling silver flatware. Works of art hung on the walls that had been commissioned by well-known artists of the day. It was an ostentatious display of the comfort and the luxury wealthy people expected to enjoy as they traveled. In the lower classes accommodations were less fabulous, but more than acceptable by the standards of middle and lower class comfort in those days. At a maximum, the Queen Mary could carry something between 1,500 and 2,000 passengers in addition to the crew, which numbered about 1,000.

But when World War II broke out, regular trans-Atlantic passenger service was suspended, in part because of the danger posed by German U-Boats and in part because the British Navy needed every ship. In the Queen Mary’s case, she was stripped of her elaborate furnishings, which were stored away, the elegant wood paneling was either removed or covered, the furniture in the staterooms was removed as well. She was repainted gray and since she remained one of the fastest ships afloat she gained the nickname The Gray Ghost.

At the museum today you are given a side-by-side view of the ship in peacetime and at war. On the peacetime side of the grand salon you see the dining room as it was in the heyday of passenger ocean travel with the table set with a dazzling array of knives and forks and spoons, each one of the functions of which the passengers in first class would have immediately understood. On the other side, the wartime side of the partition, you see a single metal tray, somewhat the worse for wear, that replaced some fifteen plates and saucers necessary for a multi-course meal. On the one side you see the luxurious stateroom that a first-class passenger would have enjoyed, large beds with beautiful bedcovers, elegant wood furniture, art work on the walls, lush carpets on the floors, and so on. On the other side the same room, now with bunks, not just one on top of another, bunks eight tiers high. That is how the Queen Mary could carry an entire division of American soldiers to Europe. On one crossing the ordinary 3,000 passengers and crew, became 16,000 soldiers plus crew on their way to war.

The ship was the product of wealth. It took a fortune to build her in the first place, and it was expensive to sail in her as a passenger. Her great engines produced record-breaking speed, speed that first attracted paying customers but would continue to be her protection during her wartime crossings of the Atlantic. But luxury gave way to utility when the war began. The accoutrements of comfort gave way to the service of men and nations. It took a national emergency to justify the transformation of that great ship from a symbol of luxury to an instrument of service. Anything less than a great emergency would have not been enough to convince people that so much beauty and comfort and luxury had to be totally forgotten. [Ralph Winter in Piper, 164-165]

That is a way, I think, of considering wealth as a Christian. You don’t spend your money in the midst of a great war for the same things you spend it on in a time of peace. We are in the midst of a great war, for the souls of men and for our own souls, the souls of our children. We live in the midst of man’s greatest emergency, the onrush of eternity toward multitudes utterly unprepared to face it and the trials of Christians needing help on their way to the heavenly country. We are used to hearing about the virtue of a simple lifestyle. That isn’t the right phrase. Simple lifestyle is not what we should be looking for; wartime lifestyle is the better image. Make sure that we are using what money the Lord has given us, however much or little, in that way appropriate to our position in this world, so soon, as we are, to leave it for the next, so soon, as we are, to stand judgment for  our stewardship.

Remember, the love of money led to the betrayal of Jesus. Judas wouldn’t have done it but for the 30 pieces of silver. Judas had heard all of Jesus’ sermons and had seen his miracles, but thirty pieces of silver is thirty pieces of silver, after all! That is how powerful the lure of money and the love of money can be. That is how completely it can dislodge a Christian from his convictions. And that is why we need to take care that we are thinking about money as a Christian should! Remember, the easier life becomes for us the harder it is for us to keep fit for the battle that loyalty to Christ and spiritual safety – yours and others – require in this dying world.