10 June 2012
In China many years ago there lived an old man, with his son and a horse.
Back in those days, having a horse was like owning a car today, so you can well imagine how valuable a property the animal must have been.
One morning, when the man went to his field to feed the horse, the animal was gone.
People in the village said, "What bad luck to lose a horse!" But the old man said, "Good luck or bad luck, who’s to say. The horse happens to be gone, and we’ll leave it at that."
The people thought the old man silly, and wondered, "How could losing a horse not be a bad thing?"
A couple days later, the horse wandered home and brought with it a beautiful but wild mare. People came by again. "You were right. Not only was your horse not stolen, it brought you another horse. How lucky you are!"
But the old man said, "Good luck or bad luck, who’s to say. It’s not always a good thing to have another horse. The fact is, now I have two horses, and we’ll leave it at that." This time, his neighbors just shook their heads. "How could it not be a good thing to get another horse for free?"
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the old man’s son, while trying to break-in the new horse, fell and broke his leg.
When the neighbors learned of the incident, they said, "You’re right. Since the new horse caused your son to break his leg, maybe it wasn’t exactly a good thing to get another horse. In fact, you might say it was unlucky for you that another horse showed up.
Same as before, the old man was indifferent about the whole thing, and said, "Good luck or bad luck, who’s to say. My son fell off and broke his leg, and we’ll leave it at that."
Again the neighbors were perplexed by the man’s inability to see how bad his luck was.
A few days later, a war broke out and a government official came into town. He conscripted all the able-bodied young men to go and fight in the war. However the old man’s son was made exempt because of his broken leg.
And you already know what he said...
What a great story from the Taoist tradition! And even though because it is fatalistic and indifferent, and it doesn’t come to the same conclusion as the biblical message -- it touches on all of the issues that are addressed in James 1:9-18. Wisdom – for our passage is really a continuation of the discussion on wisdom in the preceding verses... And wealth or status -- And dealing with trying times.
Remember verse 2 here in James 1 – “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.”
And he goes on to explain why that is wise.
Here in vss. 9-18 James is further developing his line of thought about areas where we need wisdom. And there are really two such areas in our passage.
The first is STATUS.
Now, I toyed with the idea of simply saying that it is the area of wealth or riches –- but that leaves us with the idea that this is really about dealing with money.
It’s not. Rather it’s about the people who have or don’t have money.
One day, when we were working on Guam, I had a lunch meeting with some off-island visitors that we were wining and dining on behalf of the university. So the president and I took them to the Mangilao Country Club -- one of the most beautiful view restaurants on the island -- overlooking the most beautiful golf course I’ve ever seen -- the a beautiful expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Awesome sight. The next time you’re in Guam you need to go there.
And as we drove down the road that would take us into the parking lot we came to the security station and had to stop while the guard -- a dark-skinned Palauan with red betel nut stained lips was questioning a brown-skinned Chamorro who was wanting to get into the country club.
As we sat there and waited our turn we were all thinking -- “Oh boy, we’re all going to have to verify our ID and prove to this power hungry guard that he should let us in for lunch.”
None of us were Country Club members nor regular diners there.
Eventually, the guard did let the other man in. And we drove up to the shack.
The guard bent over, greeted us kindly, looked in the car and saw that we were all white people -- and waved us on through without hesitation. No IDs. No questions. No nothing.
By virtue of our race we had special status. And in that context the assumption was that if you’re white or Japanese or Korean (or even African American), that you must have money -- and the kind of status that generally speaking automatically accompanies money - the kind of status that I saw open doors time after time on the islands. The deference was actually embarrassing at times.
Money -- and a few others things -- buy power and status. So I thought that the word status might best communicate what James is talking about here in chapter 1. And the first example found is verse 9. “Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status.” (CEB)
Yes, he’s being a bit sarcastic -- but he’s also being a lot theological. For in the kingdom of God all the normal status markers are scrambled.
It doesn’t matter how light or dark your skin is. It doesn’t matter what tribe or island you’re from. It doesn’t matter what your education level is. It doesn’t matter how much money you have.
We see this in the beatitudes -- For example Luke 6:20 -- Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (CEB)
Again, note that this is in God’s dispensation – in God’s way of looking at things. We are inclined to look at wealth as God’s blessing but Jesus says the poor are blessed.
Your neighbors might all think you’ve had bad luck and that you have a miserable life because you haven’t been able to reach the same economic status as they.
Don’t sweat the wealth thing – says James, 1:9 – “Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status.” (CEB)
Or even more literally, “the lowly brother should boast in his honor.”
Wealth is not a sign of spiritual success. Wealth doesn’t really mean anything in the overall scheme of life. If you’re poor, you’ve been spared from this distraction, so consider yourself honored.
As Jesus says, in his kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first. You’re in a good spot so don’t fret your status.
Then James addresses those who do have more. And he says that THOSE WITH GREATER MEANS ARE HUMBLED. Vs. 10 -- “Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status...”
Okay. What, pray tell, does that mean?
The city of Pompeii was destroyed in AD 79 by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
During the excavation of the city, they discovered a body embalmed by the ashes of the volcano.
It was that of a woman. Her feet were turned toward the city gate, but her face was turned backward toward something that lay just beyond her outstretched hands. The prize for which those frozen fingers were reaching was a bag of pearls.
One more thing before she left to a safe place outside the city... She turned back and in doing so died.
Wealth has that kind of grip on people of means -- but in the end it doesn’t do you a bit of good – it can even be a hindrance to life.
The more you have now, the more you lose when things get wrapped up in the end – so the more humbled you are.
Vs 10 again –
“Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status, because they will die off like wildflowers. 11 The sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass so that its flowers fall and its beauty is lost (Here in the desert we’re keenly aware of how that works.). Just like that, in the midst of their daily lives, the wealthy will waste away.”It’s all temporary. You can’t take it with you. Some try. Maybe they hang on a little longer -- plastic surgery, better health... but in the end...
There was a man who loved money more than anything. He worked all his life and hoarded as much as he could. His life was all about business and money and accumulation. He found his sense of self in what he had stashed in the bank.
And just before he died, he told his wife, "When I die, put all my money in the casket with me. I want to take it with me to the afterlife."
She promised him that she would.
At his funeral, just before they closed the casket, the rich man’s wife ceremoniously walked up to the casket, gently bent over, kissed him on the forehead and set a large shoe box in there with him. The casket was closed and rolled away -- and that was that.
After the funeral, the widow's best friend asked her, “What was in that box you put into the casket with him?”
The widow explained, "I promised him I would put all his money into the casket so he could take it with him."
The best friend almost totally lost it -- "You mean to tell me you put all his money in the casket with him?"
Her friend asked. “Are you totally crazy?”
The new widow cracked a slight smile and wryly whispered – "I wrote him a check."
A voice was saying: ‘Call out!’ And another said, ‘What should I call out?’ All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass dries up and the flower withers when the Lord’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass dries up; the flower withers,but our God’s word will exist forever.That’s from the 40th chapter of Isaiah – and it’s what James is quoting here in verses 6-8.
In the summer of 1978 I was working for the rapidly-expanding corporate cash-cow Mervyn’s Department stores -- helping to set-up the new store in Tempe -- store #45.
I had an executive position -- unloading trucks.
And I have a memory of pushing a hand-truck stacked with boxes of purses. And the hot summer wind was whipping around us on the dock and they were playing a song by a group called Kansas over the store audio system -- “Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.”
And every time I hear that song on the oldies station I’m transported back to that 120 degree loading dock.
Well, in spite of all the good work we did, that store itself eventually became dust in the wind -- along with all the other bankrupted Mervyn’s stores.
The wealthy should be humbled by the temporalness of their situation, says James.
Those with lesser means are honored. Those with greater means are humbled. BUT ALL ARE BLESSED FOR THEIR FAITHFUL ENDURANCE.
It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter whether you are high status or low status – the bottom line is still the same – says James, faithful endurance.
Vs. 12 –
“God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (NLT)In athletic competition the winner of the ancient race was awarded a crown of laurel. That was the trophy. But in ancient times the crown was also the sign of royalty.
Here in James 1:12 the crown is a symbol for salvation. Those who endure – who remain faithful to Christ through the ordeals of life will get to share in his kingdom –- not just as a citizens but as his children -- as co-regents.
And this leads right into the second area where we need wisdom says James – and that is in the area of trials and temptations.
I pointed out last week that the Greek word for a trial or testing and a temptation are identical. It is only by context that you can tell the difference.
And it’s not unusual that a trial – a test -- a difficulty – could turn into a temptation – they are related in that way as well.
But we need to get away from the blame game when it comes to temptations.
From the beginning we’ve tried to blame God for the temptations that come our way. Even in the garden Adam said to God – “The woman YOU gave me, gave me some fruit to eat...”
So James says, that the wise thing to realize – especially when you’re going through a tough time is that TEMPTATIONS COME FROM WITHIN NOT FROM GOD.
James 1:13-16 (NLT)
“And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. 14 Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. 16 So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters.”Bede the great 7th century English pastor said:
“There are three stages of temptation. The first is suggestion, the second is experiment, and the third is consent. If we resist the devil’s suggestions, then we have victory over temptation and deserve to inherit the crown of life. But if we let the enemy’s suggestions gradually take control of us, then we find that we are taken away from the right path and start to indulge the sin. However, if we go no further than initial experiments, we may have offended God, but we have not yet fallen into mortal sin. However, if we continue down the path of depravity and start to embrace evildoing by giving our full consent to it, then we are deserving of death, and the enemy has triumphed over us.”The point – we allow ourselves to get sucked in.
When you’re faced with temptation or trials don’t play the blame game and suggest that since God is bringing these temptations anyway – so why shouldn’t I indulge them?
The wise person takes responsibility and doesn’t blame God for his temptations or trials.
There is, however, one thing we CAN blame God for, says James – that is his generosity.
GOD IS GENEROUS TO US – MAKING US HIS FAVORED CHILDREN – THE APPLE OF HIS EYE.
Some of you are not familiar with that phrase “apple of his eye.” It’s a dated idiom -- but I like is -- so I’ll keep using it.
It means that you’re the best. It’s as though you are the favored child – except all of his children are so favored.
Did any of you watch on YouTube or read about the troubling but on-target graduation speech that David McCullough, Jr., an English teacher at wealthy Wellesley High School, in Massachusetts gave to the graduating class of 2012? He told the rich and coddled graduates that they’re nothing special -- at least until they’ve achieved something special.
And he is more or less right. In spite of the fact that you’ve been led to believe that life revolves around you and that you are the center of the universe and that you are truly unique -- you’re nothing special.
It was a great speech. But I’d quibble with him a bit. He is correct -- generally speaking -- we are not special because special implies unique -- unique like our daughter who on Monday passed her comprehensive exams at UC San Francisco on and is now a “candidate” for a PhD in genetics. In 3-5 years we’ll hae yet another Dr Boydston. As a proud parent I can say, that’s pretty special -- I’d like ot see you top that. But still -- even then -- that is only special in one very narrow academic field -- and really not life itself.
I would be very comfortable in saying that everyone is “important.” For we all share in the image of God. We are made in his image according to Genesis 1:26-27.
There is, though, an even greater sense in which we are important -- perhaps even special. According to James we are special because God has declared us to be his children -- his prized possession of all creation.
James 1:17-18 (NLT)
17 “Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. 18 He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.”That is, we are the apple of his eye.
Just as all creation came into existence by fiat – by God speaking and declaring it so – so also in the same way, by his word, do we become his children.
Some of your translations don’t actually use the word children here in vs. 18 – but it is implied in the Greek phase “brought forth” or birthed.
And we, (vs. 18) out of all creation, became his choice possession. (Literally the "first fruits of all creation"). The apple of his eye -- he best, the favored...
- Far from tempting us to mess up...
- Far from playing games with us as though we were human pawns...
- Far from trying to make us stumble ...
- God has made us his special children – the apple of his eye – the highpoint of all he created.
And he doesn’t change. He is constant in his character and being. He is reliable and he’s on our side – regardless of status.
This is the key point: WHETHER RICH OR POOR GOD IS GENEROUS TO US. AND HIS GOOD GIFTS BELONG TO THOSE WHO PERSEVERE -- ENDURE IN FOLLOWING CHRIST.
In a nutshell that is what James is saying. This is the wisdom we need to hear.